Wednesday, May 13, 2009

I think I'll pass

Pass that is, on the American Patriot's Bible. Now it's not that I'm unpatriotic--though in truth I'm not very patriotic. It's just that as a Christian I am a citizen of a different kingdom--and just an alien and a pilgrim in this land, as wonderful as it is, was, or might become. I am certainly grateful that I do not have to worry about persecution, but I don't believe that the United States was founded by Christians, is or ever was or should ever be a Christian Nation, is One Nation Under God, or is a nation that trusts in God. Nor do I care all that much. Some, but not much. As Christians what is of primary importance is how we live. Not our country, or its creeds, laws and institutions.

Saturday, May 09, 2009

Church History Lesson 15 (Defining the Faith)

Note: I taught a Sunday School on Church History in 2004 in New Hampshire. Starting in February I'll be teaching the same course here in Virginia. So any posts, including the one below, and especially for the first half of the series, are more or less repeats.

Church History Lesson 1 (Introduction)
Church History Lesson 2 (Time is Ripe: Part 1)
Church History Lesson 2 (Time is Ripe: Part 2)
Church History Lesson 3 (The Start of The Church)
Church History Lesson 4 (The Life of Jesus)
Church History Lesson 5 (The New Community)
Church History Lesson 6 (The Church at Antioch)
Church History Lesson 7 (The First Council)
Church History Lesson 8 (Paul's Second Missionary Journey)
Church History Lesson 9 (The End of the Apostolic Age)
Church History Lesson 10 (Those Crazy 60s!)
Church History Lesson 11 (The Next 200 Years)
Church History Lesson 12 (Worship in the Early Church)
Church History Lesson 13 (New Testament Writings)
Church History Lesson 14 (Early Christian Heresies)

(Note: generously adopting and lifting from F. F. Bruce's fantastic book: The Spreading Flame.)

Defining the Faith
Let us quickly review the early church heresies that we discussed last week.


This was a denial of the incarnation. There were variations, but a common view was that the Christ-Spirit came upon the Jesus-man at his baptism, and departed from him at the crucifixion, leaving the Jesus-man to die. Another Docetic school held that Jesus' human form was an illusion, ghost, or phantom. As we saw last time, a form of Docetism is even found in the Koran:
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 generally included Docetism, but went way beyond it. It was, and is, in many ways, the most dangerous of all heresies for its enduring ability to attract advocates. In the modern era it is represented by the New Age movement, Astrology, Eastern Religions, etc. It incorporated the idea of knowledge as being the path to salvation. The goal of acquiring the special knowledge was to awaken the divine within us—remnants of the creation of the material world by a misguided demigod. Jesus was a messenger of the supreme god, come to enlighten us as to how we could return to the intended spiritual state.

Gnostics, unlike Christians, do not believe that God created the earth, or that creation of the material world was "good."

The identification of the physical as evil resulted in one of two extreme lifestyle choices: asceticism or, following the logic that the flesh is irrelevant, "anything goes."


A sort of minimal Gnosticism in which there are two gods: the lesser god of the Old Testament, who did the unsavory act of creating the material world, and the loving merciful god of the New Testament, who was Jesus’ father. Recall that Marcion’s rewriting of scripture provided the incentive for the Church to make great strides in organizing the canon.


One could debate whether this is properly labeled as a heresy or just a misguided sect. While Gnosticism exaggerated the importance of the intellect, Montanism overemphasized the experiential. The Montanists believed that the age of the Son had ended and the age of the Paraclete (Holy Spirit) had begun. They exalted prophets and prophetess, who spoke not as messengers, “…Thus saith the Lord,” but rather as if they were possessed by God, such as Montanus: "I am the Father, the Word, and the Paraclete." The greatest known Montanist was Tertullian.

Defining the Faith

The church had to respond to these early heresies. One important way was through early creeds, used for the most part, especially in the earliest days, during baptisms. The creeds were modified from time to time to arrest the spread of error. Thus the early baptismal creed had to be extended beyond the line:
I believe in God the Father.
Since, for example, Marcion could affirm such a statement, to
I believe in God the Father, maker of heaven and earth.
This, neither Marcion (nor any of the Gnostics) could affirm, for it identified the God the Father—whom they would consider the New Testament god—with God the creator, or the Old Testament god. Irenaeus (115-190), Bishop of Lyon, and author of Against Heresies (Full title included Detection and Overthrow of the False Knowledge, i.e., this work was meant to refute Gnosticism) summarized, around A.D. 180, the church’s beliefs as:
" God, the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven, and earth, and the sea, and all things that are in them; and in one Christ Jesus, the Son of God, who became incarnate for our salvation; and in the Holy Spirit, who proclaimed through the prophets the dispensations of God, and the advents, and the birth from a virgin, and the passion, and the resurrection from the dead, and the ascension into heaven in the flesh of the beloved Christ Jesus, our Lord, and His manifestation from heaven in the glory of the Father ‘to gather all things in one,' and to raise up anew all flesh of the whole human race, in order that to Christ Jesus, our Lord, and God, and Savior, and King, according to the will of the invisible Father, ‘every knee should bow, of things in heaven, and things in earth, and things under the earth, and that every tongue should confess; to him, and that He should execute just judgment towards all...'" (Against Heresies X.l)
Here it is again made plain that God the Maker is also God the Father, and that the current Christian dispensation is vitally connected to the Old Testament, since through the Holy Spirit it was proclaimed through the prophets.

Here we see our threefold confession: In God the Creator and Father, Jesus the Son, and the Holy Spirit. The orthodox understanding relationship among the three personalities, however, would not develop so easily, but more of that anon.

The Apostolic Tradition, usually credited to Hippolytus (?-236, and the first antipope) contains the following baptismal liturgy
When the elder takes hold of each of them who are to receive baptism, he shall tell each of them to renounce, saying, "I renounce you Satan, all your service, and all your works." After he has said this, he shall anoint each with the Oil of Exorcism, saying, "Let every evil spirit depart from you." Then, after these things, the bishop passes each of them on nude to the elder who stands at the water. They shall stand in the water naked. A deacon, likewise, will go down with them into the water. When each of them to be baptized has gone down into the water, the one baptizing shall lay hands on each of them, asking, "Do you believe in God the Father Almighty?" And the one being baptized shall answer, "I believe." He shall then baptize each of them once, laying his hand upon each of their heads. Then he shall ask, "Do you believe in Jesus Christ, the Son of God, who was born of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary, who was crucified under Pontius Pilate, and died, and rose on the third day living from the dead, and ascended into heaven, and sat down at the right hand of the Father, the one coming to judge the living and the dead?" When each has answered, "I believe," he shall baptize a second time. Then he shall ask, "Do you believe in the Holy Spirit and the Holy Church and the resurrection of the flesh?" Then each being baptized shall answer, "I believe." And thus let him baptize the third time.
Note that from the earlier creedal statement, we see the expansion of the description of Christ. This is adapted into the so-called Apostle’s creed, which we present below annotated so as to clarify its response to Gnosticism.
I believe in God the Father Almighty, Maker of Heaven and Earth,

Gnostics taught that the material world is evil, and that God the Father did not make it.
And in Jesus Christ, His only Son, Our Lord, Who was conceived by the Holy Ghost, Born of the Virgin Mary,

Gnostics (and Docetists) denied that God had taken human nature or a human body. As stated, many believed the Christ-Spirit came upon the man Jesus at his baptism, and departed from him at the crucifixion, or that Jesus’ human form was an illusion. Against this denial of the Incarnation, the Church affirmed that Jesus was conceived through the action of the Holy Spirit, refuting the Gnostic claim that the Spirit had nothing to do with Jesus until His baptism, that he was born (i.e., he had a real physical body, and not just an appearance) of a virgin (which implied that he had been special from the first moment of his life, and not just from His baptism).
Suffered under Pontius Pilate,

Affirms that Jesus, in his deity, suffered—he was no whisked away leaving just a human shell to suffer. Recall that Docetic literature such as the Gospel of Peter denied that Jesus as God suffered.
was crucified, dead, and buried; he descended into Hades.
The explicit reference to dead and buried, and the descent into Hades (Hell), make it clear that the death of Jesus was not just a swoon or a coma, but death in every sense of the word.
The third day he rose from the dead, he ascended into heaven,
and is seated at the right hand of God the Father Almighty.
From thence he shall come to judge the living and the dead.

I believe in the Holy Ghost,
the holy catholic church,
Gnostics believed that the most important Christian doctrines were reserved for a select, intellectual elite. The creed affirms that the fullness of the Gospel was to be preached to the entire human race. Hence the term "catholic," or universal.
the communion of saints,
the forgiveness of sins,
Gnostics denied that men needed redemption or forgiveness, but enlightenment. Ignorance was the only unpardonable sin. Some of them, believing the body to be a snare and delusion, led lives of great asceticism. Others, believing the body to be quite independent of the soul, held that it did not matter what the body did. They accordingly led libertine lives. Either way, the notion of forgiveness was alien to them.
the resurrection of the body,
The chief goal of the Gnostics was to shed the body, which was but a prison of the spiritual. Their goal was to return spiritually to the heavenly realm. They totally rejected any idea of the resurrection of the body.
and the life everlasting. AMEN

The Nature of the Threefold Revelation

Although the baptismal and doctrinal creeds did much to combat Gnosticism, there still remained the difficult question of the exact nature of the relationship among the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. This complex issue resulted in additional heresy.


Monarchianism had a noble goal: addressing the criticism that Christians were tritheists, that is they worshipped three gods. (Today, many non-Christians including Jews, and even some who call themselves Christians, still view orthodox Christianity’s claim of monotheism as being patently absurd.) The various schools of thought know as Monarchianism taught that Jesus and the Spirit were but emanations from God, or that they were merely different forms in which the Father chose to manifest himself from time to time.

One Monarchian school was Dynamism. Christ, according to the Dynamists, was a faculty, feature, or emanation of God, like the rays of the sun or a stream from a fountain. The bottom line: the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost are but a single Person. One of the leading proponents of Dynamism was the scandalous Bishop of Antioch, Paul of Samosata, whom we met earlier (Lesson 11). In 268, the Church condemned him as a heretic. He was accused of acquiring great wealth by illicit means, of showing haughtiness and worldliness, of having set up for himself a lofty pulpit in the church, and of insulting those who did not applaud him and wave their handkerchiefs, of admitting women to live in his house, and had permitted the same to his clergy.)

Ironically, this Paul, a heretic, is noteworthy for introducing into the theology of the trinity the Greek adjective homoousios (of the same substance) which will be important in the orthodox formulation.

Dynamism was usually coupled with Adoptionism, which taught that Jesus the man was promoted to the rank of Son of God because of his perfect obedience. This heresy makes its way into classic literature, when Milton, in Paradise Regained, puts these words into the mouth of the Father:
This perfect Man, by merit call'd your Son.
A more popular school of Monarchianism was called Sabellianism (after Sabellius, priest of Northern Africa, ~215) or Modalism. According to this school, The Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are simply three roles played by God. The Sabellianists do not deny, for example, the Apostle’s creed, for it describes the three manifestations of God while saying nothing of His inner being.

The Sabellianists were also called Patripassians, (pater –father, passio –suffering) for their doctrine implied that the Father and the Son are essentially the same person, and so the father suffered on the cross. The Sabellianists, according to Tertullian, “drove out prophecy and brought in heresy, expelled the Paraclete (Holy Spirit) and crucified the Father.”

In the same way that Marcion stimulated the church begin formalizing the canon, Monarchianism forced the church to examine the scriptures to formulate the correct view of the triune God. In particular, Sabellianism (Modalism), while not completely unattractive, was simply incompatible with scripture that spoke of the Father sending the Son, or the Father and Son sending the Holy Spirit, or the Son praying to the Father, etc.
that all should honor the Son just as they honor the Father. He who does not honor the Son does not honor the Father who sent Him. (John 5:23)

that they all may be one, as You, Father, are in Me, and I in You; that they also may be one in Us, that the world may believe that You sent Me. (John 17:21)

And because you are sons, God has sent forth the Spirit of His Son into your hearts, crying out, "Abba, Father!" (Gal. 4:6)

16I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Counselor to be with you forever– 17the Spirit of truth. The world cannot accept him, because it neither sees him nor knows him. But you know him, for he lives with you and will be in you. (John 14:16-17)

But I tell you the truth: It is for your good that I am going away. Unless I go away, the Counselor will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you. (John 16:7)
The problem, then and now, is summarized succinctly by F. F. Bruce: Our conception of God must fall short of His real being, and our language about him must fall short of our conception.

In defining an orthodox doctrine of the Trinity, it has proved extremely difficult to find the right terms that avoid error in the two extremes: Modalism, in which the Father, Son, and Spirit are just three ways that God alternately reveals himself, or tritheism, in which the three are so distinct as to constitute three different gods.

It must be established that, axiomatically, Christianity, and the New Testament, affirms monotheism as ardently as Judaism. Whatever else we may, as Christians, say about the nature of God, we solidly affirm that He is One. As Christians, we agree with the Jewish creed of Maimonides that states:
I believe with perfect faith that the Creator, blessed be His name, is a Unity, and that there is no unity in any manner like unto His, and that He alone isour God who was, is, and will be.

But, unlike Jews, we do not see the unity of God as a monolithic unity. As the early theologians struggled to find ways to express this, we must remember that they were not merely waxing philosophical, but trying to find expression that did justice to revelation and experience. God had revealed Himself, and had been experienced, as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and in His word. God did not, as the Adoptionists taught, wait around until a man of Jesus’ stellar character arrived; God took the initiative in sending the Son.

Among the church fathers, Hippolytus was forceful in his attack on the Roman bishops (popes) Zephyrinus (202-217) and Callistus (217-222) in what he regarded as their complicity in the spread of Sabellianism, although it must be added that Callistus eventually excommunicated Sabellius.

It was, however, Tertullian who provided the greatest service in developing the terms that began to express what Christians believed but couldn’t say.

It is to Tertullian to whom we owe the word “Trinity”, and also the language of one substance in three persons. And though we still use the words substance and persons in describing the trinity, they do not mean exactly what they meant for Tertullian, and so in some ways our expression of the Trinity suffers somewhat.

For Tertullian, the Latin word persona denoted one who played a part or performed a function in society. Tertullian adopted the word to theology, and spoke of three persona in the indivisible Godhead. Today, the word means more that it did to Tertullian, essentially meaning “persons”, but three persons is closer to a tritheist view that we really want to go.

Likewise, when Tertullian used the word substance (Latin substantia) we again have a problem. Tertullian did not mean it as we do today; for us the word substance is inextricably tied to materiality. We view "of one substance" as meaning "made out of the same stuff." Tertullian would have meant something closer to the modern meaning of "essence" rather than substance. For Tertullian and other third century theologians:
God is one Being, eternally existing the threefold relationship of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; each of these three is "the one God, thinking, willing and acting, in one of His three eternal spheres of thought, volition and activity… the indivisible Godhead subsisting and operating in one of the essential relations of His Tripersonal life." (H.B. Swete, The Holy Spirit in the Ancient Church)
Origen of Alexandria, probably the church's greatest thinker and scholar of the first three centuries, also struggled with the doctrine of the Trinity. In Origen's reaction to Monarchianism, he went too far. He thought that the Father, Son, and Spirit occupied a hierarchical position within the unity of the Godhead. The Son was subordinate to the Father, and the Spirit to the Son. He even taught that the Son was a creature, not in the sense that he was a created being but that the Son's being was derived from the Father's and is subject to His will. (He was not, however, an Arian—a heresy of the following [fourth] century that denied the divinity of Christ, which we will discuss later.)

The third century did not end (if indeed it ever has ended) the debate on the doctrine of God’s inner being. The next big advancement would come with the Arian controversy.

Saturday, May 02, 2009

Church History Lesson 14 (Early Christian Heresies)

Note: I taught a Sunday School on Church History in 2004 in New Hampshire. Starting in February I'll be teaching the same course here in Virginia. So any posts, including the one below, and especially for the first half of the series, are more or less repeats.

Church History Lesson 1 (Introduction)
Church History Lesson 2 (Time is Ripe: Part 1)
Church History Lesson 2 (Time is Ripe: Part 2)
Church History Lesson 3 (The Start of The Church)
Church History Lesson 4 (The Life of Jesus)
Church History Lesson 5 (The New Community)
Church History Lesson 6 (The Church at Antioch)
Church History Lesson 7 (The First Council)
Church History Lesson 8 (Paul's Second Missionary Journey)
Church History Lesson 9 (The End of the Apostolic Age)
Church History Lesson 10 (Those Crazy 60s!)
Church History Lesson 11 (The Next 200 Years)
Church History Lesson 12 (Worship in the Early Church)
Church History Lesson 13 (New Testament Writings)

(Note: generously adopting and lifting from F. F. Bruce's fantastic book: The Spreading Flame.)

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 heresy. The name of one of the 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 and 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, attributing culpability to Herod Antipas.

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 formulas 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 principles" 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 on, 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.