Generalization: In some ways, dealing with heresy is as tricky as dealing with cancer.  While the early church was able to develop diagnostic tools and surgical instruments effective in containing some forms of heresy, the church found other forms of heresy much harder to diagnose and treat. 

I.  Introduction: the problem of division/heresy

Jesus had prayed that his followers would be united, in the words of what is sometimes called his high-priestly prayer, “That they may be one as we are one.”  At first, there was a remarkable degree of unity within the church.  Acts talks about the disciples being of one accord, dwelling together, and sharing their possessions.  But it wasn’t long before there were challenges to this unity.  Paul, Peter, James, and Jude all had to take steps to restore and maintain unity in the churches. 

In the era after the apostles, the unity problem didn’t go away: if anything, it became worse.  Heretics, those who would cause division within the church, were, is some ways, every bit as much of a threat to the continuation of Christianity as persecution by Roman authorities.

In some ways, dealing with heresy is as tricky as dealing with cancer.  While the early church was able to develop diagnostic tools and surgical instruments effective in containing some forms of heresy, the church found other forms of heresy much harder to diagnose and treat.

[Note that the problem with cancer is that anything strong enough to deal with cancer might also lead to the destruction of healthy tissue.  A surgeon might cut away too much.  Chemo inhibits healthy growth as well as the cancer. Treating heresy involves similar dilemmas.]

II. Gnosticism

One of the heresies troubling the church in post-apostolic times was a belief system we’ve already looked at, Gnosticism, the problematic teachings that II Peter and Jude addressed. In the 2nd century, the church had to confront to different forms of the Gnostic heresy, one championed by a man named Valentinus, the other by Marcion, both of whom attracted followers in Rome itself.
    A.  Valentinus

Valentinus’ teaching drew from the teachings of Plato’s Timmaeus and on an allegorical interpretation of the Old Testament.  Initially, emanating from the ultimate god was the “pleroma,” fullness.  This in turn gave rise to the Ogdoad, a group of eight aeons (or archons), essentially powers. Emanating from the ogdoad, still mora aeons including “Sophia,” wisdom.  Wisdom somehow fell, being entangled with evil matter.  But Christ brought secret knowledge into the world to redeem fallen wisdom.  Valentinus affirmed the inspiration of scripture, but he insisted it had a deeper meaning and that the surface meaning wasn’t important.

          B.  Marcion

Marcion took a different approach.  He had been born into a Christian family (his father was a presbyter) but he was uncomfortable was much of what the church taught.  Marcion shared with the other Gnostics the idea that the soul was good and the physical body evil.  This led him to reject the god of the Old Testament entirely.  In Marcion’s view, the Old Testament god was vindictive and unjustice.  What kind of god would favor that licentious bandit David?  Further, it was that Old Testament god who had mixed matter and spirit and who had created that repugnant business of sex which ended up with even more good souls getting trapped in evil bodies. The Old Testmant god couldn’t possibly be the, ultimate god, the kindly father of Jesus.

To support these ideas, Marcion had to edit the Bible.  He rejected, of course, the entirety of the Old Testament. For the New Testament, he accepted only Luke and the letters of Paul, his heroes. But even in these books, there were too many things that seemed to accept the validity of the Old Testament—and Marcion blamed Judaizers for corrupting Paul and Luke.  A bit more editing.

III. The Church's answer

Now how does one address problems of this sort?  Today’s scholars (e.g., Elaine Pagels) often champion the Gnostics: they were offering valid forms of Christianity.  But the more honest (like Pagels) admit Gnosticism could have destroyed the church.  And, like most heretics, the problem wasn’t just corruption of doctrine, but bad teaching about personal life.  Ireneaus talks about the way Marcus, one of the Gnostic heretics, manipulated married women into sleeping with him, and the difficult problem of helping those women when they finally realized they were being used and abused. 

So—time for some surgical instruments

          A.  Development of Canon

Here’s something we’ve already looked at.  As the church came to agreement on what books were authoritative and what books not, it was easier to come to general agreement on accepted doctrine.

          B.  Development of Ecclesiastical Structure of church

Notice how much attention Eusebius pays to the succession of bishops in each of the churches.  There is a reason for this!  Eusebius is in part writing an anti-heretical work, and what Eusebius is doing is showing a line of transmission for the genuine teachings of the church.  Having a regular arrangement or bishops, elders, and deacons is useful in working toward general agreements. C.  Careful refutation of heretics

Several church writers of this period spent a good deal of effort getting to know in detail the doctrines of the various gnostic groups and answering them point by point.  One of the most effective was Irenaeus, Bishop of Lyon (d. 202 AD?).  Irenaeus’ Against Heresies includes detailed descriptions of the beliefs of various Gnostic groups.  Contrary to the slanders of many modern scholars, church leaders *weren’t* trying to hide what the Gnostics were teaching.  It’s almost exactly the reverse.  Gnosticism depended for its appeal on its claim of a *secret* tradition from Jesus that the Gnostics alone possessed.  This feeling of specialness was only preserve by keeping their teachings at least partly hidden, available only to the elite initiates.  Irenaeus (and others) exposed Gnostic teaching to sunlight—very effective.

Also effective, the Refutation of All Heresies, usually attributed to Hippolytus (170-235 AD).  This book traces each of the heretical groups to a particular school of Greek philosophy.  Here are the fundamental assumptions of this heretical group: here’s why these assumptions are wrong.

A third anti-heretical writer: Tertullian (AD 155-240?) who did a particularly good job refuting Marcion.

          D.  Rule of Faith

Perhaps the most effective of the surgical instruments used to confront Gnosticism, what came to be called the Rule of Faith or the Rule of Truth.  Want to know what’s genuinely from Jesus and what’s not?  Look to the churches of apostolic succession.  Note what they have in common.  This will point us to the genuine teaching of Jesus and the Apostles—and note that there is no room here for a set of secret Jesus teachings.  Here’s Irenaeus’s explanation of the Rule of Truth:

The Church, though dispersed throughout the whole world, even to the ends of the earth, has received from the apostles and their disciples this faith: [She believes] in one 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 [future] 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 Saviour, 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; that He may send “spiritual wickednesses,” and the angels who transgressed and became apostates, together with the ungodly, and unrighteous, and wicked, and profane among men, into everlasting fire; but may, in the exercise of His grace, confer immortality on the righteous, and holy, and those who have kept His commandments, and have persevered in His love, some from the beginning [of their Christian course], and others from [the date of] their repentance, and may surround them with everlasting glory.

As I have already observed, the Church, having received this preaching and this faith, although scattered throughout the whole world, yet, as if occupying but one house, carefully preserves it. She also believes these points [of doctrine] just as if she had but one soul, and one and the same heart, and she proclaims them, and teaches them, and hands them down, with perfect harmony, as if she possessed only one mouth. For, although the languages of the world are dissimilar, yet the import of the tradition is one and the same. For the Churches which have been planted in Germany do not believe or hand down anything different, nor do those in Spain, nor those in Gaul, nor those in the East, nor those in Egypt, nor those in Libya, nor those which have been established in the central regions of the world. But as the sun, that creature of God, is one and the same throughout the whole world, so also the preaching of the truth shineth everywhere, and enlightens all men that are willing to come to a knowledge of the truth. Nor will any one of the rulers in the Churches, however highly gifted he may be in point of eloquence, teach doctrines different from these (for no one is greater than the Master); nor, on the other hand, will he who is deficient in power of expression inflict injury on the tradition. For the faith being ever one and the same, neither does one who is able at great length to discourse regarding it, make any addition to it, nor does one, who can say but little diminish it.

All this gave the church what it needed to overcome Gnosticism.  Gnosticism survived, and re-emerged from time to time, but it never seriously threatened the church.

IV. Conflicts over minor issues, e.g. Quartodecimians

The Rule of Faith covers most major doctrinal issues—and it looks like we’ve got a statement that the vast majority of Christians can agree too.  But it’s odd how much potential for division there could still be over the (maybe) 2% of doctrine and practice not covered by the Rule of Faith.  One example: the Quartodecimian controversy.

Quartodecimians believed Easter should be celebrated with the Jewish Passover, on the 14th of Nissan.  Others in the church wanted Easter celebrated on the Sunday following the Passover full moon.  The Apostle Paul had said such issues were unimportant: one esteems one day above another, another esteems all days alike. Leave this to the individual. 

But the Roman church insisted on a Sunday Easter: Quartodecimian practice wasn’t acceptable. 


We here the commercial about our strength being in our diversity.  That’s really not the case.  Our strength tends to be in our unity.  You can’t play man-to-man if your coach wants the team to play a zone! 

But we can take the quest for unity too far.  It would be silly for a coach to insist that each of his players adopt exactly the same foul shot routine. 

So: where do we draw the line?  “In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty” says one slogan.  But what’s essential, and what’s not?

VII. Montanism

One area where it was hard to decide was over the teachings of Montanus (late 2nd century AD).  Montanus emphasized the ongoing nature of the gifts of the holy spirit, and especially the gift of prophecy.  He believed Christ was coming back soon—and would establish the New Jerusalem and Pepuza, a city in Phrygia.  In many ways, the Montantists were a lot like today’s Pentecostals.  Nothing specifically wrong with their doctrines—and they were rather heroic in their stand against persecution. 

None of the churches tools listed above were particularly effective against Montanism. Scripture? The Bible promised that there would be signs following believers similar to those the Montanists displayed. Paul said to covet earnestly the best gifts, and that’s what it looked like the Montanists were doing. 

Careful refutation?  Tertullian, one of the best Christian anti-heretical writers of the time, was a Montanist himself--and his defense of Montanism refutes the non-Montanists!

Sunlight?  The Montanists didn’t make any of their teachings secret, and detailed understanding of their doctrines wasn’t going to help.

The Rule of Faith?  Here, too, there was a difficulty.  The Montanists claimed that they had received their prophetic gifts in direct line from the apostles, and certainly Phrygia did have a tradition going back to the earliest church. 

Christians in Rome and elsewhere wavered in their attitude toward the Montanists. They didn’t seem to be teaching anything contrary to orthodox doctrine. But belief in ongoing prophecy can open up the door to some strangeness—just as it does in Pentecostal churches today—and this was worrisome.

So what happens here?  Well, for the most part the church treated Montanism as benign: not something that would kill the church.  And, eventually, it pretty much died out on its own.

Interesting, by the way, that the Montanists believed in the “priesthood of all believers,” and that they had no difficulty with the idea of women serving as bishops and presbyters.  They were pretty strict with clothing styles: no ornamentation.  Also strict with fasts and other things. 

V. Monarchian controversy

Another potential problem for the church during this period, Monarchianism.  You might think of Monarchianism as a kind of extreme monotheism, or (at least) an anti-Trinitarian view.  Two forms of Monachianism that created controversy, associated with two different figures:

          A.  Sabellius (early 3rd century Roman priest)

Sabellius taught what is sometimes called modalism, the idea that Father, Son, and Holy Spirit were just different modes of the same god, the same being where three different “masks.”  God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit are all the same “person.”   It’s hard in a way to see what’s wrong with this.  Still, Tertullian and other objected vehemently to “patripassionism,” the idea that God the Father suffered on the cross.

Around AD 220, Pope Calixtus excommunicated Sabellius: I suspect because doctrines like this tend to be advanced, not out of a search for truth, but as a result of a search for personal advantage.  Sabellianism survived and reappears from time to time.  Apparently, some of the Montanists adoped Sabellian teachings, and the Sabellians believed in ongoing spiritual gifts like those the Montanists argued were still available.  Seems to be a lot like “oneness” Pentecostalism of today.  

In any case, it seems another of those teachings that’s mostly harmless.

          B.  Paul of Samosata (Bishop of Antioch, c. AD 270)

Another form of Monarchianism is that advocated by Paul of Samosata.  Paul’s held to the idea that there was only one God, and Jesus was adopted by God.  God’s son, yes.  The messiah, yes. The savior, yes.  But not God: a uniquely inspired man.

Now this was tough to deal with.  The Bible isn’t absolutely clear on this, and, while Trinitarians can point to the first chapter of John’s Gospel as conclusive, one also has to consider the many adoptionist verses in both the Gospels and the various letters, e.g., “Thou art my son, this day have I begotten thee.’

Careful refutation?  Exposure to sunlight?  Not so helpful here either.  Paul of Samosata’s position is attractive precisely because it offers a picture of Jesus that, at first at least, seems every bit as reasonable if not more reasonable than more orthodox ideas.

Well, what about appealing to the rule of truth—the apostolic tradition.  Take, for instance, the teachings of the church at Antioch, the church where the disciples were first called Christians.  Maybe ask the bishop of Antioch what he things.   But—oh, wait.  Paul is the bishop of Antioch.

Now most of the other bishops outside Antioch wanted Paul gone, but Paul refused to give up his position, and there were some bishops who supported him.   Who would decide?

Well, Paul’s opponents decided to resort to an appeal to secular authority, asking the (pagan) emperor Aurelian to intervene!  Aurelian ruled that, among rival candidates for bishop, the one in communion with the bishop or Rome got the spot.

So—another surgical instrument: appeal to secular authority.  A dangerous precedent!

VI. Conflicts over leadership

Now notice that, while doctrine is a factor in the dispute at Antioch, there’s also going on a personal power struggle, with rival candidates wanting the prestige and authority that goes with church office.  Very, very hard to deal honestly and fairly with doctrinal issues when personal interests are at stake.  Two related power-struggle caused divisions, Novatian’ schism at Rome and Cyprians troubles in Carthage.

Novatian (mistakenly called Novatus by Eusebius) was a brilliant scholar and writer, and a candidate for bishop of Rome after the previous bishop was martyred (AD 250).  He was passed over for Cornelius: not nearly as brilliant a man—but perhaps more of a people person.  A bit too lax for some, though.  Cornelius began readmitting the lapsed (those who had denied Christ to escape persecution) to communion.  Novation and others at Rome thought Cornelius was going too far, and Novatian’s supporters chose to regard Novation as the rightful bishop or Rome.  History calls him an antipope.  Well, maybe.  But why not the true pope?  Who will decide?

One obvious mediator, Cyprian, the brilliant bishop of Carthage.  But persecution had created problems for Cyprian as well.  He had gone into hiding to escape martyrdom, and, for some in Carthage, this seemed to be behavior unworthy of a bishop.

Further, Cyprian was having trouble with a group called “the confessors.” These were Christians that had stood up to persecution and torture no matter what.  Lapsed Christians had been going to these confessors asking them for forgiveness and readmission to fellowship.

This was undermining Cyprian’s authority as bishop: he was the one supposed to be making this call.  Cyprian, too, was faced with a rival claimant to his position, a claimant supported by the confessors.

Cyprian ended up supporting Cornelius at Rome.  And Novatian, unhappy at this, supported Cyprian’s opponent.

In AD 258, persecution flared up again, this time under the emperor Valerian.  Both Cyprian and (probably) Novatian died martyr’s death.

Cyprian and Novatian were excellent writers, and both spoke beautifully against heresy and on the need for unity.  Novatian’s “On the Trinity” offers a very convincing refutation of the Sabellian heresy and a powerful defense of the Rule of Faith as a key to unity in the church.

And here’s what Cyprian has to say about unity—ironically, in a treatise directed against Novatian!

And this unity we ought firmly to hold and assert, especially those of us that are bishops who preside in the Church, that we may also prove the episcopate itself to be one and undivided. Let no one deceive the brotherhood by a falsehood: let no one corrupt the truth of the faith by perfidious prevarication. The episcopate is one, each part of which is held by each one for the whole. The Church also is one, which is spread abroad far and wide into a multitude by an increase of fruitfulness. As there are many rays of the sun, but one light; and many branches of a tree, but one strength based in its tenacious root; and since from one spring flow many streams, although the multiplicity seems diffused in the liberality of an overflowing abundance, yet the unity is still preserved in the source. Separate a ray of the sun from its body of light, its unity does not allow a division of light; break a branch from a tree—when broken, it will not be able to bud; cut off the stream from its fountain, and that which is cut off dries up. Thus also the Church, shone over with the light of the Lord, sheds forth her rays over the whole world, yet it is one light which is everywhere diffused, nor is the unity of the body separated. Her fruitful abundance spreads her branches over the whole world. She broadly expands her rivers, liberally flowing, yet her head is one, her source one; and she is one mother, plentiful in the results of fruitfulness: from her womb we are born, by her milk we are nourished, by her spirit we are animated.

So ironic that those who most prize unity often inadvertently fan the flames of division.  Cyprian himself ended up on the “winning” side of most doctrinal disputes, but, he, too, espoused a position later condemned as heretical.  What does one do with those who have been baptized by schismatics/heretics who now want to be part of the “orthodox” church?  Cyprian said baptism by heretics didn’t count: they had to be rebaptized.  Ultimately, the church said no: so long as the baptism itself was carried out properly, it didn’t matter who had done the baptism.

VIII. Donatist Schism

Novatian’s idea that lapsed couldn’t be admitted to communion and Cyprian’s idea that heretical baptism didn’t count bounced back after Diocletian’s persecution.  Once again, there were many who had denied Christ that wanted to be restored.  And, once again, the issue of baptism by heretics came up.  A group called the Donatists combined Novatian’s idea on the former, Cyprian’s idea on the latter. And long after the original issues made no sense anymore, Donatist churches and Orthodox churches were rivals in the same communities: until both were swept away by Islam.