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HERESIES IN THE EARLY CHRISTIAN CHURCH
Presented to Professor Whelchel, Ph.D, By Rev. Alcenir Oliveira, for Church History 1 (ICAM 866), at the Interdenominational Theological Center of Atlanta, on December 4th, 2006
The relevance of the context in which the Christian church was born for the study and understanding of heresy is of utmost importance. We have to bear in mind the transformation the Mediterranean, Mesopotamian and Persian region went through from the 3rd century BCE until the birth of Christianity. The end of the Persian Empire replaced by the Greek brought to the region a new form of domination characterized not only by military, but also cultural power. These two powers combined transformed the region and robbed the Hebrew hegemony in terms of worship and influence. The Greek philosophy combined with a multi-pagan-worship was planted in the society. Even the Hebrew rules and statutes were suffocated by the dominant culture. At the birth of Christianity there were already many philosophies and or religions that shaped the people’s “world’s view”. It is common sense the understanding that philosophies, religious concepts and “the world’s view” shape the attitude of the individual in the society. The most intense proposal of Christianity is the transformation within the concept of “born again”. Even being converted and born again, human being habits and attitude would be recurrent, based in the doctrine of total depravation whereas we are sinners until we are received in heaven, with the difference that we are forgiven and do not enjoy sinning. These were the psychological grounds of the society at the time of Jesus. In Palestine, where the Church was first planted, we find a mix of culture that makes the region very particular, with the roman Latin speaking domination, the Greek as the main spoken language and way of life, and the Hebrew religious system also divided into groups: the included, the excluded (Samaritans) and sects. Therefore, there is enough reason for the growth of different teachings in the church. As the differences in teaching
2 came up and grew, the masters of the Church started fighting them back and these controversies they named heresies. This way the church spends a great deal of its time, teaching and preaching in defense of the believers against the teachings arisen from this religious, philosophical and cultural background.
1. Context and Definitions
The early church dealt with controversies related to ambiguous teachings that were big challenges to its masters and the definitions posted by the Hebrew bible and kept by Christianity, reaffirmed or rephrased by the Christian writings. There are references to disagreements in the New Testament in the very beginning of the church, as mentioned by Apostle Paul in I Cor 11:19, when first the word from which originated the word heresy is used (haireseis – factions in the RSV and differences in the NIV). It had not the actual meaning. It was used for “sect”, “school” (as of philosophy or medicine), as referred by Grant 1. At that very moment heresy was a fact, but it was not yet a challenge. For reference in this study, the Oxford English Dictionary definition of heresy as a “theological or religious opinion or doctrine maintained in opposition, or held to be contrary, to the catholic or Orthodox doctrine of the Christian Church, or, by extension, to that of any church, creed, or religious system, considered as orthodox. By extension, heresy is an opinion or doctrine in philosophy, politics, science, art, etc., at variance with those generally accepted as authoritative” will be taken. In a short etymological consideration, the word heresy comes from the Greek word αἵρεσις (hairesis, from αἱρέομαι, haireomai that means choose), and means choice, beliefs or a faction of dissident believers (Oxford Dictionary). Irenaeus writings “Contra Haereses” (Against Heresies) are intended to fight the opposition in the early Christian Church. For him, the contrary and right position is the orthodox (from ortho- “right” and doxa “thinking”), which is the position of the Church. Therefore, we can understand heresy not only as a concept that developed in and for Christianity, but also as any position or philosophy that is against the most accepted as the right one (orthodox).
Robert M. Grant. Heresy and Criticism: The search for authenticity in early Christian Literature. Westminster/John Knox Press, 1993. p.4.
3 The hypothesis is that it depends on the perspective or of which side it is being considered. The opposition is the heretic. That requires the existence of a body of knowledge or authoritative system known as dogma accepted as orthodox. Most of the established and consolidated religions use the term orthodox to refer to their foundations. Therefore, any teaching or doctrine that goes against their foundations is heretic. During those first three centuries, Christianity was effectively outlawed by Roman authorities that required all citizens to venerate the Roman emperor and Roman gods. Consequently, when the Church labeled its enemies as heretics and cast them out of its congregations or severed ties with dissident churches, there was nothing else she could do at least until the conversion of Constantine. However, after being considered heretics the individuals were seen as fools, wild dogs, servants of Satan. The popular reaction to heresy gave the word “heretic” a very bad, negative one. According to Irenaeus, in the second century, the man called Simon mentioned in the book of Acts 8: 9-24, was the first charged of Gnostic libertinism. This Simon Magus he identifies as the prototypical source of Gnosticism. He founded a school of moral freedom or amoralism, a concept similar to the “anti-social personality disorder”, where both refer to those people who no just do not have social moral principle, but don’t accept them. Irenaeus says that Simon Magus assured to his followers that “those who put their trust in him and his consort Helen, need to trouble themselves no further with the biblical prophets or their moral exhortations and are free to do what they wish, as men are saved by his (Simon's) grace, and not by their righteous work (adapted from Adversus Haereses, I.23.3)2.
2. The Development of Heresy in the body of the Early Church
Most of the heresies of the early church have roots in Gnosticism, but they are based on aspects and perspectives that resulted from thoughts and understanding of their founders or leaders. There were three most important heretic groups by the second century. One was the group of Marcion (marcionism);
4 the second was the group of Montanus (montanism); and the third was Gnostic teachings of Valentinus (Gnosticism). These groups are responsible for the development of many other movements with some difference of interpretation. The fact that these groups or schools are from the first half of the second century, makes them of great significance for the history of the early church
Marcion lived between 85 and 160 ce. He was a Christian Bishop born in Sinope and founder of the Marcionites, a heresy that was considered the first greater and dangerous confrontation with Christianity. He preached in Asia Minor and went to Rome, where he worked on the improvement of his theory as well as presented himself as a candidate to papacy. As he was not chosen, he quit the church. Some believe that this was the key for his great confrontation with the Early Church. His controversial teachings included the belief that there were two gods: the God creator, of the Old Testament; and the good, merciful God of the New Testament. He considered the creator inferior to the New Testament God. His other controversial teaching was about the incarnation of Jesus, which he believed did not happen for it was a manifestation of the Father. Despite being accepted as the most important Gnostic leader, he had profound differences in believe. He believed in salvation by faith, whereas the Gnostics believed in the gnosis; he also rejected the Gnostic emanation theory; he had his own canon of the New Testament that included only 10 epistles of Paul and an edited version of the Gospel of Luke and rejected the Old Testament with the argument that the Jewish law was frequently opposed to the teachings of Paul. It shows he was an adept of the antinomianism, the understanding that Christians are saved by grace and don’t have to submit to moral law3, turning to a kind of Christian “amoralism”. b.
Columbia University Press Encyclopedia
W. Möller, "Montanism," Philip Schaff, ed., A Religious Encyclopaedia or Dictionary of Biblical, Historical, Doctrinal, and Practical Theology, 3rd edn, Vol. 3. Toronto, New York & London: Funk & Wagnalls Company, 1894. pp.1561-1562
5 Montanus preached and called himself a prophet by the middle of the second century in Phrygia, at Ardaban close to Mysia. He gathered many followers and had two prophetesses known and Priscilla and Maximilla, and two followers called Alcibiades and Theodotus. Even Tertullian adopted his teachings later. The content of his preaching was prophecies and ecstatic visions in announcing the closer return of Jesus and the establishment of his Kingdom, the New Jerusalem at Pepuza in Phrygia. He affirmed to be the prophet in charge to proclaim the final consummation of the apostolic promises. This movement went freely until it started growing beyond the region until it gained opposition from the leaders of the church. The movement started to be seen as a demonic sect and being applied exorcism against it. About eight decades later the montanists had to separate from the Orthodox Church.
Valentinus was an early Christian Gnostic theologian who was born around the year 100 and died presumably around the year 160. His teachings were widely known and for some time the most successful. He founded his school in Rome. He was once a candidate for bishop, some say it would be Rome around 143, but the choice fell on other. This led him to leave the church and dedicate to the development of his theological system, said Tertullian, in his Adversus Valentinianos iv,5
3. The Most important and dangerous heresies in the Early Church a. Marcionism
Construed on the teachings of Marcion of Sinope, around the year 144, a little more than 100 years after the crucifixion of Jesus, Marcionism is a dualist belief system recorded by Tertullian in his Adversus Marcionem, xv. Marcionism was once almost the most popular form of Christianity and preached an understanding of the roots of Christian belief different of that of today. It was considered
6 heresy and was condemned in the writings of Tertullian around the year 208. His writings were lost but widely read. Marcionism starts after his excommunication from the Church of Rome around 144. A rich Christian son of a Bishop from Pontus arrived in Rome around 140. He used his own funds to create his ecclesiastical organization, which lasted for 300 years, even though his teachings went further. It grew outside the Byzantine Empire nurtured the consolidation of doctrines such as Manichaeism. It is believe that the prophet Mani may have learned Marcionism doctrines because he was once a Mandaean, and Mandaeanism has some relations to Marcionism. One common belief is in a Demiurge. Marcionism has ended, but Mandaeanism has not.
Montanus converted to Christianity and used to preach accompanied by two women called Prisca or Priscilla and Maximilla. Maximilla was believed to be the embodiment of the Holy Spirit that moved and inspired them. He preached to have received much revelation of the Holy Spirit and to be, himself, the paraclete mentioned in the Gospel of John 14:16. They were known as “the three” and their preaching was full of ecstatic visions, call for fasting and praying to enable people to share their revelations. The flame of the movement was ignited by his understanding of being the paraclete of the Gospel of John, what influenced so much the Christians that it became divided and the orthodox bishops tried to crash it. Eusebius 5.16.5 quotes that the Bishop Apollinarius report a split of the church of Ancyra in two and he opposed this “false prophesy”. His preaching reached across the Christian World of the time, including Africa and Gaul from Phygia, where he stated that the city of Pepuza was going to be the New Jerusalem. Prisca admitted that she saw Christ in vision as a female. Tertullian, once a great orthodox, defended strongly the movement. Irenaeus, after visiting Rome during this controversy, started writing his Adversus Haereses.
7 The montanism is referred as persisting until eight century. However, its emphasis on a direct ecstasy the person experiment with the Holy Spirit is yet very similar to the all forms of today’s Pentecostalism. There were 5 basic beliefs of Montanism that contrasted with orthodox Christianity. First, they believed that the doctrines proclaimed by the Apostles were fulfilled by Montanism prophesies. Second, they encouraged ecstatic prophecy and speaking in tongues. Third, they believed that whoever left the faith would be disgraced and could not be restored, as believed the orthodox. Fourth, the montanist prophets believed they were possessed by God and spoke in his person, literally “I am the Father, the Word and the Paraclete”. Fifth, they had a stronger emphasis on the avoidance of sin, church discipline, apocalyptic living, chastity and no remarriage. Some early church leaders like Jerome said that the movement was part modalist monarchian and others were close to the Trinitarian doctrine.
Gnosticism defines religious groups, including some claimed Christians in the first century. The term is used frequently to emphasize the salvific benefit of individual wisdom. The Gnostic belief systems seek escape from ignorance and many Gnostic movements defined themselves as Christians, but there many variations in their religious orientations. Other truth many are not aware of is that Gnosticism didn’t die; it is still present in modern time. Examples of it are the Manicheans, from the Persian prophet Mani, as well as the Mandaeans, both yet alive in Iraq and Iran. The most open characteristic of the Gnosticism is the dualistic view of deity, a celestial entity and a material one. The Albigensian brings to the Gnostic thought a different approach of this view with the mythological competing forces of light and dark, light to the celestial and dark to the material. This material entity is represented by Demiurge which is understood as the god who created the material world. Under Christian influences, demiurge is comparable in properties with Satan. Because it a movement of plural doctrines, it is difficult to stand for a complete definition. However there are seven most important aspects to be considered. First is the belief in the existence of a
8 remote, supreme and incomprehensible divinity (monadic: indivisible one), known as the Pleroma and Bythos. Second, they believe in emanation of further divine being, a progressive distancing from the source of creation. Third is the understanding of the fall as a divine deed and not human, within divinity itself. This stage is enacted by the figure of Sofia. Fourth is the idea of a god creator, inferior to the celestial god, raised from the platonic tradition to name it demiurges, which commands the material world and, in some type of Gnosticism, create obstacle for the soul seeking evolution out it. Fifth is the idea of the world as a product of error, inferior to a higher reality or consciousness, and sometimes is conceived as evil and a prison for the inhabitants. Sixth is the idea of the falling of a divine element within certain human beings and it returns through a process of awakening that will culminate with the concurrent restoration of the divine nature in the individual. Seventh is admit the mediation of a redeemer figure in the process of restoration, that can be Christ, Seth or Sophia.
Adoptionism is a belief of early Christian that Jesus Christ was born human and was adopted as son of God in the Baptism. It is a complex system that states that Jesus in his divinity was son of God by nature, but as human only by adoption. Thus it is one form of the Monarchianism. The other form of Monarchianism is the modalism that sees Father and Son as two aspects of the same subject. This is one of the Christological controversies about the nature of Christ in the relation with the Father and the Holy Spirit. This doctrine holds that Jesus was not co-eternal with God; that God is one being, above all else and wholly indivisible and of one nature. It teaches that Jesus the son was granted divinity, adopted, for
9 the plans, perfect life and works of God. Jesus may have been adopted at the time of the Baptism or in the ascension. One best known exponent of adoptionism was Theodotus of Byzantium.
Antinomianism is a word formed from the Greek Nomous (law) anti-nomous (against law) and contains the theological ideal that the believers are not submitted to laws of ethics and moral. It can be understood as the antithesis of legalism or salvation through practicing the law. It is a misunderstanding of the salvation by grace, not by deeds.
Apollinarism or Apollinarianism worth to be mentioned because of its definition of Jesus as with three dimensions: a human body, a lower soul (emotional dimension) and a divine mind.
Arianism was Christian group that believed Christ is a created being not really divine, propose by the Alexandrian presbyter Arius in the fourth century, stating that God is the only immutable and self-existent; Jesus is a creature of God with a begging, but not God. The Council of Nicea (325) condemned Arius and declared that Jesus is “of one substance with the father”. The Council of Constantinople (381) approved the Nicene Creed and proscribed Arianism.
Docetism believed that Jesus physical body and crucifixion were an illusion. They claimed that Jesus seemed to have physical body and seemed to physically die, as well as that he was incorporeal, a pure spirit that could not die. This is accepted as a Gnostic related doctrine that believe matter is evil, thus God could live in an evil material body. This comply with the doctrine of imprisonment of the soul in the body, that is the idea that “the divine spark is imprisoned within the material body created by an evil lesser god (demiurge) that prevent man from seeing his divine origin”. This belief is a contradiction
10 to the importance given by Christians to the resurrection of Christ that, in this case, would not have happened as he was not human and didn’t really die. Therefore, the meaning of crucifixion and resurrection is lost.
Donatism a schismatic movement led by Donatus, Bishop of Casae Nigrae, and by a theologian known as Donatus the Great or Donatus Magnus, among the Christians of North Africa. It started with the rejection of the election of as Bishop of Carthage and his consecration by the bishop Felix of Aptunga, considered a traditor. Thus, they refuted also any sacramental work of Felix. This reaction had behind the heresy of Montanus that those living a blameless life belong in the church, and that the validity of sacrament depends on the personal worthiness of the minister. Thus, any sacrament performed by an unworthy minister is nullified and the believer has to go through the same, like rebaptizing, which was a Donatist practice. They were condemned by the Synod of Arles in 314, under Emperor Constantine I, and seceded, developing their own hierarchy. They became greater in number in relation to the orthodox in North Africa by 350, and in each city had an opposing Donatist church. By 411, the debate between orthodox and Donatist, state pressure and ascetic excess in the movement started contributing to their decline until disappearance with the advent of Islam.
Manichaeism, a movement founded by the Persian prophet Mani in the 3rd century. Mani considered himself as the last of sequence of prophets that starts in Adam passing by Adam, Buddha and Jesus and ending in him. His teachings hold that the world in a fusion of spirit and matter, the principle of good and evil. The fallen soul is trapped in the evil/material world, from where it can reach the transcendent world by way of the spirit.
11 It survived until the end of the 5 century, being crushed by Christians and the Roman state, but it remained in Asia through the 14th century. j.
Monarchianism is a belief that teaches the rule of one God with authority over Jesus and the Holy Spirit, is a set of beliefs that emphasize God as being one, that God is the single and only ruler. Theodotians and Paul of Samosata that Jesus was born man and received the Christ as a power from God at a later time, as in the adoptionism. The modalist monarchians taught that Christ is one mode of the manifestation of God, for God self is unknowable.
Modalism believes that God exists in one person only but his manifestation happens in three modes: the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. Modalism is also called Sabellianism out of the name of Sabellius, his proponent. Sabellius theory presumes that God father suffered in the Cross, therefore the principle is named also Patripassianism by his opponents.
Monophysitism holds that Christ has only one nature in opposition to the two natures stated by the Chalcedonian Council. Its most radical representative was a presbyter and archimandrite at Constatinople called Eutyches, and his word was a response to Nestorianism.
Nestorianism is a Christian doctrine that attributes to Jesus two persons, the human and the divine son of God. The proponent was Nestorius, a Patriarch of Constantinople (386 – 451 ce), condemned in the Council of Ephesus in 431 leading to the separation of the Assyrian Church of The East from the Byzantine Church.
12 Nestorianism rejected the expression “God suffered” or “God was crucified”, as Jesus was human and was God (Logos). The human Jesus suffered, but the Logos didn’t. they rejected also the “Theotokos” principle that teaches that Mary as giver of birth to God and thus mother of God, replacing it by “Christotokos”, whereas she gave birth the Christ the human only.
The Ophites is an odd school that in effect provided basis for many Gnostic sects of Egypt and Syria around the end of 1st and beginning of the 2nd century. They raised a positive interpretation of the serpent deed in Eden in the story of Adam and Eve, whereas the serpent become a hero and God creator is the demiurge. They acknowledge the three as gnosis and the serpent intended Adam and Eve to gain knowledge, but was forbade by demiurge, the God creator. As the Bible doesn't actually identify the serpent more than being a serpent, the Ophites felt perfectly justified in their position, pointing to the serpent's trying to cause Adam and Eve to gain knowledge, and the forbidding of this knowledge by the figure which Christianity and Judaism identify as God. Christians supporting the church orthodoxy viewed Gnosticism as their arch enemy, and took particular offence at the Ophites turning their view of the serpent on its head, eventually persecuting them out of existence. The Ophites own texts were destroyed in the 4th century, then the information available come only from the opponent’s side, whom were Hippolytus, in Philosoph. V., Irenaeus, in Against Heresies. i, Origen, Contra Celsum vi. 25 seq., and Epiphanius of Salamis, in Panarion. Xxi. The only available texts are from Nag Hammadi.
Patripassianism is the belief that God Father and Son are simply different aspects of God. In this case, God suffered in the cross. Patripassianism is closely related to modalism.
Pelagianism was developed in the 5th century teaching that God gave free will to choose between good and evil. Thus sin is a complete voluntary act. Pelagius, a British monk who lived from around 354 to 418 was settled in Africa in 410. He had the purpose raise moral standards of Christians. He didn’t accept the argument that sin resulted from human weakness. Celsius, his disciple, condemned the doctrine of original sin and stated the need of infant baptism. Both were excommunicated in 418. They were completely wiped out by the Council of Ephesus in 4316. Deplorable in this heresy is the statement that humanity has full control and full responsibility for every sin and for its own salvation. This position eliminates turns grace invalid. By doing this, Pelagius opposes Augustine of Hippo (St. Augustine) who preached salvation by grace alone.
Sabellianism is known also as modalism or modal monarchism, a doctrine that teaches that the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit are different modes or aspects of one only God, instead of three distinct persons in Himself, as states the Trinitarian doctrine. The debate raises two paradoxical questions: is God’s threeness a matter of our falsely seeing it to be so? (Sabellianism/modallism), or a matter of God’s own essence revealed as three-in-one? (Orthodox trinitarianism). Its great opponent was Tertullian, who called Sabellian a patripassionist – Latin Patris (Father) and passus (to suffer). It implied that God Father suffered in the cross because it implied that the Father suffered on the Cross. The debate led Tertullian in his Adversus Praxeas to refer to Sabellius this way (By this Praxeas did a twofold service for the devil at Rome: he drove away prophecy, and he brought in heresy; he put to flight the Paraclete, and he crucified the Father).
Encyclopedia Britannica Concise online.
14 The history of the church seems too realistically cruel with some leaders and we may find it humanly unjust. We may raise questions about the reasons some facts in history had to happen. However, returning to the very beginning of Christianity and tracing the original purpose of the prophecies and the ministry of Jesus Christ we are going to understand the reason why some deeds of history happened. Many of the leaders who turned to be heretic were good believers and leaders in the church, and much more they were subject to candidacy to higher positions in the church, where the institutional authority emanates. Therefore, if these leaders are not questioned about the genuine truth related to the content of their teachings, they may form an astounding multitude of followers who would be formed according to their perspective. In the event that such leaders would occupy influential positions in the institution, they would do irreversible damages to the church. As we have seen through the unorthodox doctrines described here, it is unforeseen where the church would have gone, had doctrine like that of Montanus succeeded and gained adepts throughout centuries and made it to our time. The controversies on the nature of Jesus Christ, the relationship of God, Christ and the Holy Spirit, and redemption were the most dangerous threats to the church. It is amazing how some of them could grow and stay for such long time, be submitted to the debate and judgment of the authorities of the church and yet survive through centuries and some not even disappear and survive to our time, like the Gnosticism. These three controversies could really have changed the direction of the church. The matter of the two nature of Jesus Christ, if changed the authoritative understanding of humanity and spiritual nature, redemption and salvation looses their meaning, for Christ would not have died and resurrected and our faith would be worthless.
15 Nevertheless, the controversies on the doctrine of the relationship of Father, Son and Holy Spirit changes completely the perspective we ever had from the Bible and what the Confessions teach us. The very careful but important conclusion we reach here is of how the cultural context are influential on the way and what the people believe. We perceive that philosophers who lived long before haave a so deep influence on the society and on the most important leaders of the church, which is for instance the case of Tertullian, that it became very difficult for the post-apostolic fathers of the church to keep the unity of the church. A simple doctrine like the Greek Gnostic dualism is so deeply rooted and so easy to be planted in the minds of the people that gives trouble for the church for many centuries. The Greek empire dominated not only militarily, but culturally. They exported the language, religion and else, and changed the world forever. The Turkish in their period of domination returned home bringing the religion and the Arabic alphabet, and they were changed forever. It is a real paradox.
BETTENSON, Henry. Documents of the Christian Church. 2.ed. Oxford University Press: New York, NY, 1967 ELLINGSEN, Mark. Reclaiming our roots: The late first century to the eve of the reformation. Vol. I. Trinity: Harrisburg, PA, 1989. GONZÁLEZ, Justo L. The Story of Christianity. Vol. I. The Early Chruch to the Dawn of the Reformation. Harper: New York, NY, 1984. GRANT, Robert M. Heresy and Criticism: The search for authenticity in the early Christian Literature. Westminster/John Knox Press, 1993. KÄRKKÄINEN, Veli-Matti. Christology: A Global Introduction. An Ecumenical, International, and Contextual Perspective. Baker Academic: Grand Rapids, MI, 2003. p. WILSON, Robert McL. Gnosticism. METZHER, M. Bruce and COOGAN, D. Michael. The Oxford Companion to the Bible. Oxford: New York, 1993. P.255/256.
------- The Catholic Encyclopedia, Volume XV. Online Edition, 2003 by K. Knight.