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Advanced Historical Theology - Early Church Heresies - by C. Matthew McMahon

Historical Theology Articles

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Part 4 – Advanced Historical Theology – Early Church Heresies 

The Christian church had to defend itself against the various theological heresies that arose early in her midst. The first doctrinal problem was the case of its relationship to Judaism. Since Christians were clearly organized under the leadership of the Jerusalem council and the elders there, it was much easier to deal with heresies over the long term than if they were a scattered bunch of independent groups that had no relationship to one another. Some Judaizers came into the church teaching that it was necessary to obey the Law of Moses. At another level, the Ebonites taught that Christ was not always the Son of God, but was adopted by God as Son after he fulfilled the law. It seems Ebionism is related to Essenian Judaism for some of its principles have been taken from there.

Ebionism gave way to Gnosticism because of its reinterpretation of Judaism. The main type of this reinterpretation of Judaism was from a man named Elxai who lived in the first half of the second century. His doctrine is Ebionite, but has a strong Gnostic influence. He claimed he received a revelation from an angel who was ninety-six miles tall, and the angel was the Son of God.

Under the title Gnosticism included many of the mystery religions which were comprised of a syncretistic manner of hodge-podge theology. Gnosticism basically assimilated any new doctrine that seemed appealing. When Christianity was introduced after Christ, they saw aspects that were appealing. Gnosticism cannot be traced back to one thought, but is a combination of many religious thoughts. Salvation for them consists in the liberation of the spirit, which is enslaved because of its union with material things. This salvation is achieved through knowledge or gnosis – from which came the name. Men who propagated such doctrine were Simon Magnus whom Justin said had a large following, and Menander, one of Simon Magnus’ disciples who was a Jewish Gnostic. Cerinthus was the first Gnostic to reinterpret the Christian Gospel and said that Jesus and the Christ were two different beings. Saturnius, a disciple of Menander, said the world was made by seven angels (for God would have nothing to do in creating evil material substance). Christ simply came to free us from the world and to set abstinence laws upon us to live here until men are released from material slavery. The school of the Carpocratians was born in Alexandria, which is said their teacher Caprocrates lived about 130 A.D. Neoplatonism dominated their thought and they taught that human souls were pre-existent and salvation is achieved by recalling that preexistence. Vallentius also lived in Alexandria at this time and was expelled by the church in 155 A.D. for Gnostic doctrines.

Valentius probably gave the most comprehensive outline of Gnostic doctrinal ideas. He said the eternal principle of all being is the Abyss. In Him is found silence. This silence is divided into two beings, Mind and Truth. Thus there is Silence, Mind and Truth as the triad of beings. Mind, being attached to Truth, birthed the Word (Logos) and Life. From these came the human beings and the Church. These divine emanations continue for thirty eons and ultimately reach Jesus who is here to free men from material bondage through knowledge. This outline is found in his writings called The Gospel of Truth.

Marcion was another early heretic who taught some ideas that were close to Gnosticism, and others that were different. Those different ideas revolved around his conception of how “the gods” were to be viewed. Christianity was a religion, for him, that taught about forgiveness. The god who is involved in this forgiveness cannot be the same god who created the material world because evil exists. Therefore there must have been another unknown god that exists and has sent the message of forgiveness. This god is love. He is not related to this world and is foreign from it. Over an against his god of love is the opposite god who has formed this world and the evil in it. This is basically a primitive from of dualism that he is ascribing. Marcion theology excludes this world from the sphere in which the Supreme God rules. Still, there is a secret knowledge of this supreme God in which one can escape the bonds of materialism. All this information, he says, came from understanding the epistles of Paul and the Gospel of Luke. All other writings were of no use and were not of divine origin. Like other Gnostics, Marcion also taught that Christ was not truly human. He could not believe that God became man and denied the incarnation, even though he accepted, for the most part, the Gospel of Luke.

Other sectarian groups appeared, one of which was led by Montanus. Montanus was a pagan priest who had been converted to Christianity and baptized around 155 A.D. He then declared himself possessed by the Holy Spirit. Two women joined him named Priscilla and Maximilla who also prophesied. This was new revelation given specifically to them by the Holy Spirit, who in turn, was starting a new dispensation of the church. This claim, though, of having new revelation, endangered the finality of revelation given in Christ.

While these new heresies were emerging, some in the church were struggling over the relationship of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Monarchianism taught that the Father was the supreme monarch that ruled all, including the Son, since no distinction could be made between their essence. Paul of Samosota began dynamic Monarchianism that taught that the impersonal power of the logos was not the same as the essence of deity. Modalist Monarchianism did not deny the full divinity of Christ, but simply identified it with the Father. In this way the Father suffered on the cross as well (since they are one God). This view is also known as Patripassianism.

The response to all these heresies was the regula fide, or the rule of faith that had been given in written form in the Scriptures by Christ and the Apostles. The importance, here, of apostolic succession overruled the heretical sects both by the lineage the church, and the doctrines that came from that lineage as seen in the bible. Clement of Rome has already appealed to this succession against heresies that were schismatic against the church. Apostolic succession could guarantee a certain measure of continuity, and it was a very valuable norm. This, coupled with New Testament exposition and doctrine, could overthrow the heretical sects that were emerging with truth claims. Later, this basic formation was assembled in a creed – the Apostle’s Creed – which demonstrated the basics of the Christian faith over and against the arising heresies. It was the traditio et redditio symboli in which the bishop taught the symbol or creed to the catechumen coming into the church, and they repeated it as an affirmation.

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