Monday, January 10, 2005

Lesson 14: Early Christian Heresies


Before the end of the first century, indeed before John wrote his gospel, the Greek belief that matter was inherently evil manifested itself in an early heresies. The name of one earliest being docetism, from the Greek dokein, which means “to seem.” It was especially a problem in the region of Asia Minor.

There were variants, but the common theme was a denial that the Son of God really became a man and really died. The incarnation, according to Docetic thought, was an illusion. John goes out of his way to address this heresy (attesting to its early appearance) and to affirm the humanity of death of Christ. In his gospel he wrote:
And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth. (John 1:14)

Christ did not assume “the appearance” of flesh, but actual flesh. He also wrote:
But one of the soldiers pierced his side with a spear, and at once there came out blood and water. (John 19:34)

Which emphasizes that Christ died in the flesh. John also addresses Docetism in his epistles:
this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God (1 John 4:2)

For many deceivers have gone out into the world, those who do not confess the coming of Jesus Christ in the flesh. Such a one is the deceiver and the antichrist. (2 John 7)

One school of Docetism followed Cerinthus, a contemporary of John. Cerinthus taught that the Christ-Spirit came upon the man Jesus at his baptism, and left him at the crucifixion. According the Docetic Gospel of Peter:

10 And they brought two malefactors, and crucified the 11 Lord between them. But he kept silence, as one feeling no pain. And when they set the cross upright, they wrote 12 thereon: This is the King of Israel. And they laid his garments before him, and divided them among themselves and 13 cast the lot upon them. But one of those malefactors reproached them, saying: We have thus suffered for the evils which we have done; but this man which hath become the 14 savior of men, wherein hath he injured you? And they were wroth with him, and commanded that his legs should not be broken, that so he might die in torment. 15 Now it was noonday, and darkness prevailed over all Judea: and they were troubled and in an agony lest the sun should have set, for that he yet lived: for it is written for them that the sun should not set upon him that hath been 16 slain (murdered). And one of them said: Give ye him to drink gall with vinegar: and they mingled it and gave him 17 to drink: and they fulfilled all things and accomplished 18 their sins upon their own heads. And many went about with 19 lamps, supposing that it was night: and some fell. And the Lord cried out aloud saying: My power, my power, thou hast forsaken me. And when he had so said, he was taken up. (The Gospel of Peter)

F. F. Bruce comments:
The docetic note in this narrative appears in the statement that Jesus, while being crucified, 'remained silent, as though he felt no pain', and in the account of his death. It carefully avoids saying that he died, preferring to say that he 'was taken up', as though he - or at least his soul or spiritual self - was 'assumed' direct from the cross to the presence of God. Then the cry of dereliction is reproduced in a form which suggests that, at that moment, his divine power left the bodily shell in which it had taken up temporary residence.

Other tidbits about the Gospel of Peter: It is quite anti-Semitic, and completely whitewashes the complicity of Pilate.

Another form of Docetism taught that Jesus’ humanity was of a “phantom” nature, and that those who crucified him were deceived. Jerome (~340-420) would later write:
While the apostles were still surviving, while Christ's blood was still fresh in Judea, the Lord's body was asserted to be but a phantasm. (adv. Lucif. 23)

Finally, there was also a school that taught that it was Simon of Cyrene who was crucified while Jesus looked on from a place of safety.

Docetism is even found in the Koran’s teaching on Jesus:
And for claiming that they killed the Messiah, Jesus, son of Mary, the messenger of GOD. In fact, they never killed him, they never crucified him - they were made to think that they did. All factions who are disputing in this matter are full of doubt concerning this issue. They possess no knowledge; they only conjecture. For certain, they never killed him. (Koran 4:157)


Gnosticism is another early Christian heresy, and in fact the most dangerous, but its roots are much older (and new research keeps pushing back the origins.) Gnosticism is best described as a mythology that collided with Christianity and then absorbed some of its features and attempted to carry the mantle forward.

Perhaps the origins can be stated thusly: There was, even before the Christian era, a mythological belief regarding the structure of the universe, or cosmology. This view, in addition to corrupting early Christian thought, bifurcates into Astrology and the quasi-scientific astronomy of the second century astronomer Ptolemy. The former line continued the Gnostic way of thought, alive and well today as “New Age” thinking, while the latter ultimately lead to true Astronomy.

This early, pre-Christian cosmology taught that the universe was comprised of clear, hard, earth-centered concentric spheres. Each planet had its on sphere upon the surface of which it was constrained to move, and beyond these was the sphere of the “fixed” stars. Beyond the sphere of the stars lay the realm of the supreme god.

Each of these astronomical objects was the spirit ruler of its particular sphere. In scientific terms, this represented an advancement over earlier cosmologies that, for example, viewed the earth as the floor of a giant tent.

The theology associated with the cosmology held that the lords of the spheres served as intermediaries between god and man, and that the supreme god could have no direct contact with man.

This new way of thinking was given the name gnosis, from the Greek word for knowledge. However gnosis was used in a more substantive way—much like we sometimes use Science instead of science—as in “Science tells us.”

Those who possess gnosis were called Gnostics. When Christianity arose, they attempted to shoehorn its beliefs into their schema. There were many sects of Gnosticism, and they despised one another as much as they hated the orthodox. In general, however, they agreed that garden-variety orthodox Christianity was for the unenlightened, and only they, the intellectual elite, could attain the truth.

The material world was the mistaken creation of a demiurge, not the supreme god. The supreme god had created and intended only a spiritual world. So to Gnostics, unlike Christians, the earth is not of divine creation, but the mishap of a far lesser being. Some Gnostic sects identified this demiurge with the God of Israel, which brings to mind the teachings of Marcion that we discussed last week.

However, since the creation was the work of a (flawed) spiritual being, there are still bits and pieces of the spirit realm sprinkled here and there, trapped in the flesh. The Fall, to the Gnostics, was the fall of this divine element into the material realm. Our spirits are “asleep” in our bodies, and Christ is the spiritual messenger who has come to reawaken our true nature. Gnostic salvation is not merely individual redemption of each human soul, but more of a cosmic process. It is the return of all things to what they were before an error (on the part of a lesser god) brought matter into existence
The Gnostics and Docetists had much in common, including their disdain for the material. But the Gnostics went much, much farther, for they believed that gnosis lead to salvation. In other words, they possessed a special, secret knowledge, reserved for the enlightened, and that knowledge was the key to salvation.

Whereas Judaism and Christianity, and almost all pagan systems, hold that the one obtains salvation by obedience of mind and will to the God, i.e. by faith and works, (in Christianity, of course, by faith alone through grace alone) it is Gnosticism that uniquely ties salvation to the possession of knowledge of the mysteries of the universe and of magic formulae indicative of that knowledge.

What the Gnostics borrowed from Christianity was a bastardized notion of redemption. Christ was the redeemer, but not by His blood. Instead the Gnostic Jesus descended the lower world (earth) in order to release the divine element that had become imprisoned in the flesh, and to lead it back to its true home.

Gnosticism lacks the idea of atonement. There is no sin to be atoned for, except ignorance, which in Gnosticism is the equivalent of the unforgivable sin. Nor did Christ in any sense benefit the human race by his sufferings. Nor does he immediately and actively affect any individual human by the power of grace. He was a teacher, he once brought into the world the truth, the knowledge of which alone can save.

Many Gnostics did not claim to be Christians, only those that proclaimed Jesus as the spiritual messenger come to reawaken the essence trapped within the flesh. Some sects proclaimed other redeemers, including one branch prevalent among the Samaritans that proclaimed Simon Magus (Simon the magician of Acts 8) as the redeemer. Thus many afford Simon the dishonor of being the first Christian heretic (for this Simon, according to scripture, believed and was baptized.)

However, even the Christian Gnostics are, in fact, pantheists. Well they recognize that one god is the supreme god, there is a whole zoo of other lesser gods, at least in most Gnostic theologies. The least pantheistic Gnostics are the dualistic Marcionists, which we’ll discuss in a moment.

To Gnostics, a human being is really an eternal spirit, or part of a spirit, that became trapped inside a body. Since the body is a prison, it is necessarily evil, therefore the ultimate goal of the Gnostic is to escape the body and the material world, and to reunite with the spiritual.

Since the flesh is evil, the Gnostics reject the humanity of Christ. They may have allowed that Jesus had a body, but it was not human body, but a spiritual body masquerading as physical. Naturally they also reject the birth of Christ, for this would imply an unimaginable defilement of the spiritual within a womb of flesh. (One could attribute a slight Gnostic flavor to the Catholic doctrine of the Immaculate Conception, insomuch as it is supported by the notion that Christ could not be placed in a sinful womb.)

Many Gnostics held to the concept of an “elect.” Not all humans contained remnants of their spiritual creator—some were fully carnal. Thus only some humans were destined for enlightenment, while others were slated for destruction when the material world ceased.

So how should the present life, then, be lived? The bulk of the Gnostics argued that since the body is inherently evil, all its urges and lusts must be fought against. Hence, a common expression of the Gnostic lifestyle was an extreme form of self-denial or asceticism. On the other hand, a minority of Gnostics believed that since the body was essentially irrelevant as far as the spirit is concerned, they were free to adopt an anything-goes libertine philosophy.
All Gnostic sects baptized. The formulae used by Christian Gnostics seem to have varied widely from that taught by Christ. The Marcosians said: "In the name of the unknown Father of all, in the Truth, the Mother of all, in him, who came down on Jesus.". The Elcesaites said: "In the name of the great and highest God and in the name of his Son, the great King". Elsewhere we find the formula: "In the name that was hidden from every divinity and lordship and truth, which [name] Jesus the Nazarene has put on in the regions of light".
Magic was important in Gnosticism (which explains the rise of Simon the Magician). For example, power is attributed to the utterance of the vowels: alpha, epsilon, eta, iota, omicron, upsilon, omega. The Savior and His disciples are said to have at times broken out in an interminable gibberish of only vowels. Gnostic magic spells have come down to us consisting of vowels. Probably each vowel represents one of the seven planets, and the seven together represent the Universe, but without consonants they represent the Ideal and Infinite not yet imprisoned and limited by matter.
How old is Christian Gnosticism? Well, scripture addresses both schools of Gnostic thought addressed above. To the Colossians, Paul writes:
8See to it that no one takes you captive by philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the world, and not according to Christ. 9For in him the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily, 10and you have been filled in him, who is the head of all rule and authority. (Col. 2:8-10)

Here he addresses the nascent form of Christian Gnosticism, with a reference to elemental spirits, reminding the Colossians that the fullness of Christ’s deity resides within the body of Christ, and that as Christians they have been filled with Christ, not sparks from the spiritual realm.

(Some translations use “basic principals” in place of “elemental spirits”, but in any case the Greek word translated here was used to mean the gods of the stars and planets.) A little bit later, Paul really lays it own, also attacking the useless asceticism of the Gnostics:
18Let no one disqualify you, insisting on asceticism and worship of angels, going on in detail about visions, puffed up without reason by his sensuous mind, 19and not holding fast to the Head, from whom the whole body, nourished and knit together through its joints and ligaments, grows with a growth that is from God. 20If with Christ you died to the elemental spirits of the world, why, as if you were still alive in the world, do you submit to regulations-- 21"Do not handle, Do not taste, Do not touch" 22(referring to things that all perish as they are used)--according to human precepts and teachings? 23These have indeed an appearance of wisdom in promoting self-made religion and asceticism and severity to the body, but they are of no value in stopping the indulgence of the flesh. (Col. 2:18-23)

In the epistle of Jude, the brother of James (and half-brother of Christ), the antinomian expression of Gnosticism is rebuked.

For certain people have crept in unnoticed who long ago were designated for this condemnation, ungodly people, who pervert the grace of our God into sensuality and deny our only Master and Lord, Jesus Christ. (Jude 4)

7just as Sodom and Gomorrah and the surrounding cities, which likewise indulged in sexual immorality and pursued unnatural desire, serve as an example by undergoing a punishment of eternal fire. 8Yet in like manner these people also, relying on their dreams, defile the flesh, reject authority, and blaspheme the glorious ones. (Jude 7:8)


In the middle of the second century, Marcion was clearly influenced by both Docetism and Gnosticism. He shared this with those earlier (and still thriving) heresies: an insistence that the material world is evil, a strict asceticism including a denouncing of marriage for himself and his followers, and the belief that a demiurge created the material world since the supreme god would not contaminate himself with the physical.

Marcionism’s distinctive feature can be found in the profound reference that its founder, Marcion had for Paul. It has been said of Marcion: he was the only man in the post-apostolic world that understood Paul, and even he misunderstood him!

In particular he misinterpreted Paul’s teaching of the supremacy of the gospel over the law to mean that the Old Testament had no authority for Christians. Marcion’s Docetism is evident in the very beginning of his rewritten gospel (of Luke) which begins:
In the fifteenth year of Tiberius Caesar, Jesus came down to Capernaum. (Marcion, The Gospel)

It was to be supposed that it was “down from heaven” from which the adult Jesus came.

Again, as we noted last time when discussing his unintended but beneficial effect on the formation of the canon, Marcion was perhaps the first to teach that the God of the Old Testament was not the same as the God of the New Testament. The God of the Old Testament was the Gnostic demiurge who created the material world. So in some ways Marcion was a minimalist Gnostic, having but two Gods, the righteous Jehovah (who created the world) and the “good” Father.

Amazingly, since its prohibition against marriage meant that it could not perpetuate itself, Marcionism survived as a rival church for many generations. In fact, the basic tenet of Marcionism, the repudiation of the Old Testament, manifests itself now and gain throughout Christian history.


While the Gnostics over emphasized the intellectual, believing that special knowledge led to salvation, the Montanists, a movement of the second century, placed excessive importance on the experiential. It is debatable whether they should be described as heretical—but schismatic they certainly were.

We have already seen that prophets were a part of the apostolic church. The Montanists were the result of enthusiasm for prophets being taken to an exaggerated degree.

This reached a head in Asia Minor, which is to heresies what Virginia is to presidents, around A.D. 156. Montanus began teaching that while the dispensation of the Father had given way to the dispensation of the Son when Christ came, so now the dispensation of the Son is ending and the dispensation of the Spirit is beginning. He claimed that Christ’s promise of the coming Paraclete (Holy Spirit) had been fulfilled, and that he, Montanus, was the Spirit’s mouthpiece. Furthermore, this signaled the imminent return of Christ and the establishment of the New Jerusalem in one of the towns of Asia Minor. It has been said that this idea also recurs throughout history, “when the new wine of a new spiritual movement is too potent to be contained in the old wineskins of the established church.” The features of Montanism may be summarized:

  1. An emphasis on the Holy Spirit
  2. A belief that the Holy Sprit was increasing manifested supernaturally through prophets and prophetesses
  3. A stern and exacting standard of Christian morality
  4. Rigorous fasts and penances for purity
  5. A tendency to set up prophets against bishops
  6. A belief that the second advent was near, and along with it an indifference to ordinary human affairs.

What distinguished Motanistic prophecy from other prophecy was that it was given in first person rather than third. There was no "Thus saith the Lord," but rather “possessed by God” utterances such as Montanus’s "I am the Father, the Word, and the Paraclete." He also prophesied: "I am the Lord God omnipotent, who have descended into to man", and "neither an angel, nor an ambassador, but I, the Lord, the Father, am come"

By the end of the second century, the movement reached Africa, and there it attracted its greatest convert: Tertullian, probably attracted by its stern Puritanism.

According to the Catholic Encylopedia:
But Tertullian is the most famous of the Montanists. He was born about 150-5, and became a Christian about 190-5. His excessive nature led him to adopt the Montanist teaching as soon as he knew it (about 202-3). His writings from this date onwards grow more and more bitter against the Catholic Church, from which he definitively broke away about 207. He died about 223, or not much later. His first Montanist work was a defense of the new prophecy in six books, "De Ecstasi", written probably in Greek; he added a seventh book in reply to Apollonius. The work is lost, but a sentence preserved by Prædestinatus (xxvi) is important: "In this alone we differ, in that we do not receive second marriage, and that we do not refuse the prophecy of Montanus concerning the future judgment." In fact Tertullian holds as an absolute law the recommendations of Montanus to eschew second marriages and flight from persecution. He denies the possibility of forgiveness of sins by the Church; he insists upon the newly ordained fasts and abstinences… the Catholic Church consists of gluttons and adulterers, who hate to fast and love to remarry.

A Montanist sect called the Tertullianists lasted in Northern Africa until the fifth century, and Montanism, in Asia Minor lasted until the sixth.

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