The Heresies Which Disturbed the Church
in the First Millennium
(According to the History of the Christian Church
by Eugraph Smirnov; Taken from
“Orthodox Dogmatic Theology” by Fr. Michael Pomazansky)
Even the briefest survey of the heretical movements in Christianity from the first days of the Church's existence is profitable in that it shows, side by side with the common teaching of the universal Church, the "rule of faith", how various were the deviations from the truth and how very often they assumed a sharply aggressive character and evoked a bitter battle within the Church. In the first three centuries of Christianity the heresies spread their influence over a comparatively small territory; but from the fourth century certain heresies seized about half the (Roman) Empire and caused an immense exertion of the Church's strength to do battle with them; and at the same time, when certain heresies gradually died down, others arose in their place. And if the Church had remained indifferent to these deviations from the truth, what- speaking according to human reasoning- would have happened to Christian truth? But the Church, with the help of the epistles of bishops, the exhortations and excommunications of local and regional councils (and, beginning with the fourth century, of Ecumenical Councils), sometimes with the cooperation and sometimes with the opposition of the governmental authorities, brought the "rule of faith" unshaken out of the battle and preserved Orthodoxy unharmed. Thus it was in the first thousand years.
The second millennium has not changed this situation. In these years the deviations from Christian truth, the divisions and sects, have been many more than in the first millennium. Certain currents hostile to Orthodoxy are no less passionate in their proselytism and hostility to Orthodoxy than was the case in the epoch of the Ecumenical Councils. This means that it is essential to be vigilant in preserving Orthodoxy. A special vigilance in defending dogmas is required now because of a false path which has come from Christian circles outside the Church; this false path, while it seeks to attain a seemingly good aim, is inacceptable for the Orthodox Church: It is disdainful with regard to the dogmatic side of Christian faith in its striving to realize the unity of the whole Christian world (Mr. Smirnov is referring to the movement to unite all Christian churches and denominations, and even involve uniting all religions of the world, into some kind of contrived, man-made universal religion or universal Christianity).
First to Third Centuries
The Ebionites (from the name of the heretic Ebion or from the Hebrew word “ebion”, “poor”). They considered Jesus Christ to be a prophet like Moses; they demanded of all Christians the strict fulfillment of the law of Moses; they looked on the Christian teaching as a supplement to the law of Moses.
The Nazarites. They believed in the Divinity of Jesus Christ, but insisted on the fulfillment of the law of Moses by Christians who were Jews, without demanding this of the non-Jewish Christians (moderate Ebionites).
The Ebionite-Gnostics. Their teaching was composed of the teaching of the Jewish sect of the Essenes, who lived on the Dead Sea (Qumran excavations, the “Dead Sea Scrolls”), joined to the elements of Christianity and Gnosticism. The Essenes considered themselves the preservers of the pure religion revealed to Adam but later obscured in Judaism. The Ebionite-Gnostics recognized the restoration of this religion by Christ, as the bearer of the Divine Spirit; the Gnostic element was expressed in their view on matter as being an evil principle, and in the preaching of severe asceticism.
The foundation of the Gnostic systems is the idea of the creation of a higher religio-philosophical knowledge (gnosis) by uniting Greek philosophy and the philosophy of the learned Alexandrian Jew Philo with the Eastern religions, especially the religion of Zoroaster. In this way the Gnostics worked out diverse systems which set forth an absolute resolution of all questions of existence. To the metaphysical constructions made on this foundation were added fantasy-like symbolical forms. Having become acquainted with Christianity and even having accepted Christianity, the Gnostics did not abandon their fantastic constructions, but strove to unite them with Christianity. Thus arose the numerous Gnostic heresies in the midst of Christianity.
Gnostics of Apostolic Times
Simon Magus (the Sorcerer). Using the devices of sorcery, he gave himself out as “some great one” (Acts 8:9), a “higher Eon” in the Gnostic sense. He is considered the first ancestor of all heretics. For details of his life and contests with the Apostle Peter, see the Life of the latter (Lives of Saints, June 29).
Cerinthus the Alexandrian. His teaching is a mixture of Gnosticism and Ebionitism. He lived for some time in Ephesus when the Apostle John the Theologian was there. See the Life of St. John the Theologian in Orthodox Life, 1980, no. 3).
The Docetists. They considered the human nature in Christ to be only a phantom, since they considered flesh and matter in general to be evil. St. John the Theologian directed accusations against them in his epistles (for example, 1 John 4:2-3).
The Nicolaitans (Revelation 2:5-16). Starting from the Gnostic demands for the mortification of the flesh, they ended by allowing immorality.
In Post-Apostolic Times
The Alexandrian Gnostics (the Syrian Basilides and the Jew Valentinus and their followers). Starting from dualism, or the acknowledgement of two fundamental principles of existence, they considered matter to be an inactive, inert, dead, negative principle, while-
The Syrian Gnostics, accepting the same dualism, acknowledged matter as the active principle of evil (in the religion of Zoroaster, “Ahriman”). To this current, among others belonged Tatian, who had been a disciple of St. Justin the Philosopher and who preached a strict asceticism. The Antinomians were an offshoot of the Syrian Gnostics; they permitted immorality for the purpose of weakening and mortifying the principle of evil- the flesh, matter.
The Marcionites (from Marcion, the son of a Syrian bishop who excommunicated his son for Gnosticism). The founder of the heresy, Marcion, taught that the world was governed on the one hand by a good God, the spiritual principle, and on the other hand by satan, as the sovereign over matter. In Jesus Christ, according to the teaching of Marcion, the good God Himself came down to earth and assumed a phantom body. The Marcionites taught the impossibility of the knowledge of God. This heresy survived until the sixth century.
Carpocrates and his followers lessened the Divinity of Jesus Christ. His sect is one of the numerous “antinomian” sects (deniers of the moral law- in Greek, “nomos”, “law”- as limiting the free spirit).
The Manichean heresy, like Gnosticism, was a mixture of elements of Christianity with the principles of the religion of Zoroaster. In the teaching of Manes, who founded this heresy, the battle in the world between the principles of spirit and matter, good and evil, light and darkness, comprises the history of heaven and earth, in which is manifested the activity of: a) the life-giving spirit; b) the passionless Jesus; and c) the suffering Jesus, “the Soul of the world”. The passionless Jesus, descending to earth, assumed only the appearance of man (docetism), taught men, and promised the coming of the Comforter. The promised Comforter was manifested in the person of Manes, who purified the teaching of Jesus which had been corrupted by men, and opened the Kingdom of God. Manes preached a strict asceticism. Accused of distorting the religion of Zoroaster, Manes was killed in Persia. This heresy was spread primarily in the Western half of the Roman Empire and was especially strong in the fourth and fifth centuries.
This heresy, which was also called Monarchianism, arose on a basis of philosophical rationalism; the heretics did not acknowledge the teaching of Three Persons in God. The heresy had two branches: the Dynamists and the Modalists.
1) The Dynamists falsely taught that the Son of God and the Spirit of God were Divine Powers (to this group belonged Paul of Samosata, a bishop in Antioch in the third century).
2) The Modalists, in place of the teaching of a Trinity of Persons, falsely taught of the revelation of God in three successive forms; they were also called Patripassians, since they set forth the idea that God the Father was subject to sufferings. A leading representative of this heresy was Sabellius, who had been a presbyter in Ptolemais of Egypt.
This heresy was given its name by Montanus, an unlearned man who imagined himself to be the Paraclete (the Comforter); he lived in the second century. As opposed to the Antitrinitarians, the Montanists demanded the complete submission of reason to the commands of faith. Their other distinguishing features were the strictness of their asceticism and the rejection of those who had “fallen” in the persecutions. The ascetic spirit of the Montanists disposed to them the learned presbyter of Cathage, Tertullian, who joined them, although he ended his life a little apart from this heresy. The Roman bishops Eleutherius and Victor were also disposed towards Montanism. The Montanists accepted the teaching of the thousand-year earthly Kingdom of Christ (Chiliasm).
(The heresy of Chiliasm was held, apart from the Montanists, by several other heresies as well- for example, the Ebionites. Before the Second Ecumenical Council, when Chiliasm was condemned, certain teachers of the Church were also sympathetic to this teaching.)
The Fourth to Ninth Centuries
The Arian heresy, which disturbed the Church greatly for a long time, had as its originator the Alexandrian presbyter Arius. Arius was born in Libya and had been a student in the theological school of Antioch, which avoided every kind of abstraction in interpreting the dogmas of faith (as opposed to the contemplative spirit and mystical inclination of the Alexandrian school). He interpreted the dogma of the Incarnation in a purely rational way, relying on a concept of the oneness of God, and began to teach falsely of the inequality of the Son of God with the Father, and of the created nature of the Son. His heresy seized the Eastern half of the empire, and despite its condemnation at the First Ecumenical Council, it survived almost to the end of the fourth century. After the First Ecumenical Council Arianism was continued and developed by:
The Anomoeans, or strict Arians;
Aetius, who had been a deacon in the Church of Alexandria, and Eunomius, who before his excommunication had been bishop of Cyzicus. Aetius and Eunomius brought Arianism to its final heretical conclusions by developing the teaching that the nature of the Son of God is different from and unlike the nature of the Father.
Apollinarius the Younger was a learned man who had been bishop of Laodicea (from 362). He taught that in the God-manhood of Christ the human nature was incomplete; accepting the tripartite composition of human nature- spirit, irrational soul, and body- he affirmed that in Christ only the body and soul were human, but His mind was Divine. This heresy did not spread very far.
The Heresy of Macedonius
Macedonius, bishop of Constantinople (about 342), taught falsely of the Holy Spirit in an Arian sense, namely: that the Holy Spirit is a ministering creature. His heresy was condemned at the Second Ecumenical Council, which was called because of this heresy.
(At the Second Ecumenical Council other heresies were also given over to anathema: the heresies of the Eunomians, Anomoeans, Eudocians (Arians), Semi-Arians (or Spirit-fighters), Sabellians, and others).
Pelagius, a layman and ascetic from Britain (beginning of the fifth century), and Celestius the presbyter denied the inheritance of the sin of Adam by his descendents, considering that each man is born innocent, and only thanks to moral freedom does he easily fall into sin. Pelagianism was condemned at the Third Ecumenical Council together with Nestorianism.
This heresy takes its name from Nestorius, who had been archbishop of Constantinople. Predecessors of Nestorius in this false teaching were Diodorus, teacher of the theological school of Antioch, and Theodore, bishop of Mopsuestia (died in 429), whose disciple was Nestorius. Thus, this heresy came from the school of Antioch. Theodore of Mopsuestia taught the “contiguity” of the two natures of Christ, but not their union from the time of the conception of the Word. These heretics called the Most Holy Virgin Mary “Christotokos”, but not “Theotokos” (as having given birth to Christ but not to God). The heresy was condemned at the Third Ecumenical Council.
Monophysitism (the Heresy of Eutyches)
The heresy of the Monophysites arose among the monks of Alexandria and was a reaction against Nestorianism, which had lessened the Divine nature of the Saviour. The Monophysites considered that the human nature of the Saviour had been absorbed by His Divine nature, and therefore they acknowledged in Christ only one nature.
In addition to the aged archimandrite of Constantinople, Eutyches, who gave the beginning to this unorthodox teaching, it was also defended by Dioscorus, Archbishop of Alexandria, who imposed this heresy by force at a council of bishops, thanks to which the council itself received the name of “robber council”. The heresy was condemned at the Fourth Ecumenical Council.
Monothelitism was a softened form of Monophysitism. While acknowledging two natures in Christ, the Monothelites taught that in Christ there was only one will- namely, the Divine will. Adherents of this teaching included several patriarchs of Constantinople who were later excommunicated (Pyrrhus, Paul, Theodore). It was also supported by Honorius, Pope of Rome. This teaching was rejected as false at the Sixth Ecumenical Council.
Iconoclasm was one of the most powerful and prolonged heretical movements. The Iconoclast heresy began in the first half of the seventh century and continued to disturb the Church for more than a hundred years. Directed against the veneration of icons, it touched also on other aspects of the faith and Church order (for example, the veneration of saints). The seriousness of this heresy was increased by the fact that a whole series of Byzantine emperors acted energetically in its favor for reasons of internal and external politics; these emperors were also hostilely disposed to monasticism. The heresy was condemned at the Seventh Ecumenical Council in 787, and the final triumph of Orthodoxy occurred in 842 under St. Methodius, Patriarch of Constantinople; at that time there was established the feast of the “Triumph of Orthodoxy”, which is observed by the Church up to now (on the first Sunday of Lent).