CHAPTER TWO. DEVELOPMENT OF THE HETERODOX AND ORTHODOX TRADITIONS IN THE CLASSICAL AND LATE CLASSICAL PERIOD, CENTURIES 1-7

 

I.          JESUS

 

About 2100 years ago there was a man from Galilee named Jesus.  Although the very existence of this man has been called into question, the overwhelming consensus of scholars is that he was real and that he stood out among his peers.  He said comforting things about God, he inspired the common folk with hope of a better world to come, and he was unjustly put to death. People who knew him did not agree on what to think about him.  In the analysis of John Dominic Crosson, we can classify the opinion of contemporaries of Jesus,

different observers, all of whom have heard and seen exactly the same phenomena in the life of Jesus:

            He’s dumb, let’s ignore him.

            He’s lost, let’s leave him.

            He’s dangerous, let’s fight him.

            He’s criminal, let’s execute him.

            He’s divine, let’s worship him.

The last response represents the Christian faith, which was there as soon as the phrase was uttered or carried out—before any death or resurrection just as well as after it.  Christian belief is (1) an act of faith (2) in the historical Jesus (3) as the manifestation of God. (Crosson 1994, 198-199)

 

The questions, "What do we know about Jesus?" and "What was his message?” were answered by oral transmission for a number of decades after his death. Gradually, especially in the course of the second century A.D., the collection of works we call the New Testament took shape. Most Christians agree on a list of 27 writings, which include Gospels, Epistles, Historical and Prophetic works. There is also a long list of pseudo gospels, epistles and the like which date back to the same era, but which were not accepted as authentic by the mainstream of Christians. Some of the rejected works, it is now clear, contain valuable insights into early Christian thinking about Jesus, some contain little that is useful, and others contradict the New Testament writings. All three categories are found in the Nag Hammadi collection of more than fifty short texts.

 

Until the Nag Hammadi Library and the Dead Sea Scrolls were found in the mid twentieth century the primary source of information about the theological shaping of the message of Jesus in the first centuries after his death consisted of the writings of  several early theologians known as the Fathers of the Church.  Irenaeus, Bishop of Lyons, wrote in about 180 A.D. a multi volume work to refute the errors, as he saw them, of many Christian groups. This influential writing, Refutation and Overthrow of Knowledge falsely so-called, is known as  Against Heresies, or in Latin, Adversus Haereses. There were other Fathers of the Church, such as Clement of Alexandria and Tertullian of Carthage, but Irenaeus’s Adversus Haereses was the richest source of documentation on early non-orthodox Christian teachings until the twentieth century. Although he is still acknowledged to be a trustworthy recorder of his sources, his grouping of sects, it is now realized, led later scholars and historians to classify as Gnostic some which were neither Gnostic nor orthodox.

 

II.        EARLIEST HETERODOXIES

 

Gnostic Simon. In the first centuries of the Christian community a strong faction of the followers of Jesus saw him as a redeemer who saves the world described to us by Gnosticism. He saves us from a world which has been created not by the good God, but by inferior powers who worked to separate us from our true spiritual condition. Jesus was not literally a human being, but was a higher power of God who freed us by bringing us the true knowledge of what has happened and what we should be. The Gnosticism which grew out of Jewish traditions involved two key elements: 1) secret knowledge of an explanation of God’s relation to the world through embellishment of the Jewish creation stories, and 2) the expectation of a Messiah, the savior or liberator who had to sacrifice himself as the price of liberation. The actions and the fate of Jesus were explicable to Gnostic Christians because they divided his person into a plain man who suffered and a supernatural being who did not and could not suffer

 

Gnostics in the early Christian centuries found some support for their beliefs in abstruse passages of the Gospel according to John and in the Book of Apocalypse/Revelation. One of the earliest Gnostic groups we know about was evidently named after a New Testament figure, Simon, who, as related in Chapter 8 of the Acts of the Apostles, tried in vain to buy from the Apostles Peter and John the power of invoking the Holy Spirit. This Gnostic Simon had a Gnostic partner, the heavenly Helen, who embodied the female force in the Gnostic worldview. The Pauline Epistles too, point to an early Gnostic element in the Christian community, because "the people who denied the resurrection whom Paul is combating in I Cor. 15:12 are clearly Gnosticizing Christians." (Bultmann 1956, 230)

 

Docetism and Marcionism. The name Docetist is used to denote those early Christians who believed that Christ did not suffer on the cross, but only appeared to do so. The main reason for believing so was that if Jesus was God it would not be possible for him to suffer. At its most extreme Docetism held that Jesus had no body at all, that his corporeal body was an illusion. Hints of Docetism appeared already in New Testament epistles, and more developed forms of it were incorporated into various Gnostic belief systems. Docetism survived antiquity in connection with later gnostic systems of belief in spite of the fact that theology, as we shall see, developed a way acceptable to Christians of interpreting the relation between Jesus’s divinity and humanity.

 

Marcion, a native of Pontus in Asia Minor, a Christian thinker and leader from Asia Minor, flourished in the middle decades of the second century. He adopted some of the Gnostic stories about God, the world, and Christ and created a following that would last several centuries. His teachings are rather well known because Tertullian wrote a long refutation of them around the year 200. The specific and key elements in Marcion’s view were that the world we live in and we ourselves are the impure creations of a demiurge, and we can be rescued from the evil in us and around us only by the spiritual Jesus, who was sent by the good God and bore no relationship at all to the promised Messiah of the Jews.

 

Valentinianism. The Alexandrian theologian Valentinus founded a school in Rome about 140 AD. He also had a distinct following in Anatolia of Asia Minor. According to what we know of his doctrine through his disciple Ptolemy, Valentinus’s Gnosticism began with a qualified Dualism, the premise that all things, good and bad, originated in the one good divine principle. This combination is identified as Syrian-Egyptian or Western Gnosticism. It led, in the case of Valentinus, to a more cheerful outlook than that of Eastern, or Persian Dualism. Recently one of the Nag Hammadi papyri, The Gospel of Truth, has been identified as representing Valentinian thought. The Gospel of Truth enriches our understanding of a doctrine that starts out, “The gospel of truth is joy… .” Valentinus, through the numerous disciples of his school, was probably the most influential of the Gnostic teachers, and he had followers for several centuries.

 

III.       THE PRINCIPAL LATE CLASSICAL HETERODOXIES

 

A.        Arianism

 

Although Gnosticism and Dualism appeared early in Christian Church history, their impact on the christianization of the West was small. The first movement that divided the Church in a massive way was Arianism. Until the early fourth century there was still room for doubt among Christians concerning Jesus: was he really God or not? The generality of bishops - the local teachers of the Church East and West – seem to have held that he was truly God, but they did not possess a clearcut, official statement of this position. The need was brought acutely into focus when Arius, a priest of Alexandria around 320, led a movement which denied flatly that Jesus was God. Arius’s view spread quickly throughout the greater Christian community, leading to confusion among the faithful and division among bishops as believers and as church administrators. This division had political implications also, since the Emperor Constantine, who ruled the Roman world from 312 to 337 A.D., wanted harmony in the new state religion. He therefore convened, with the approval of the Bishop of Rome and other important churches, a general council, that is, meeting of the bishops, the first in Christian history, which was held in Nicaea, near Constantinople, in 325. The council produced the Nicene Creed, which stated unequivocally that the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit are God. This made Arius the first formal heresiarch, founder of movement officially declared by the Church to be heretical.

 

Although the matter of divinity was settled by the council, there was throughout the Christian world still a great following for Arius’s position, and many bishops and their flocks continued to agree with him. It was said that at one time there were more Arian churches than non-Arian. Generally, however, the local churches - that is, their bishops - taught the Nicene doctrine, and Arianism shriveled away, although it took over two hundred years before it entirely disappeared.

 

B.        Nestorianism

 

The greater Christian community having agreed that Jesus, the Christ, was truly God, the question arose, how to express the union of divine and human in the one person? The basic possibilities are:

            1.         The divinity and the humanity are distinct and separate,

            2.         they are neither distinct nor separate,

            3.         they are distinct but not separate.

 

The first of these possibilities was, in one way or another, the view of all the heterodoxies we have seen so far, from the Gnostic Simon to Arius. The last of these, Arianism, as we have seen, was the first to be declared heretical by a church general council, that of Nicaea. In fact, however, it took the second general council, which was the first council of Constantinople, to put Arianism to rest satisfactorily in 389.

 

After that, there was yet to be one more way of teaching the first possibility that the Church would condemn. Bothered by the thought that Mary the mother of Christ’s humanity could not be the mother of his divinity, Nestorius, the patriarch of Constantinople, held that she was the Mother of Christ, and no more than that. The great majority of bishops did not agree with this separation of Christ’s humanity and divinity. They insisted that she was the Mother of God as well as the mother of a man, and so defined it in the third general council, held in Ephesus in 431. A large number of bishops and their congregations sided with Nestorius even after his condemnation. For this reason Nestorianism spread far and wide; its churches were later to be found in the seventh century as far from Constantinople as China.

 

C.        Monophysitism

 

If Mary was the Mother of God, then would it not be consistent to hold that Jesus was the God-Man in whom there was neither separation nor distinction between him as God and as Man?  Some Eastern Christians came to hold this view, which spread sufficiently in the fifth century to arouse the serious attention of the bishops, who held it to be contrary to the relationships in the Holy Trinity of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Monophysitism, a term which emphasizes the union of God and man in Jesus, was the name given to this view, which was condemned by the fourth general council, held in Chalcedon in 451. Some Eastern Christian Churches, notably those of Egypt (Copts) and Armenia, objecting to the council’s wording of the condemnation, rejected it. For this reason the Western Church and most of the Eastern Churches have considered them to be monophysite. The official position of both Copts and Armenians, however, is that they do not identify the human with the divine in Jesus, but are misunderstood by the other Churches. An account of the misunderstandings at the Council of Chalcedon is given in The Coptic Orthodox Church as a church of erudition & theology by Tadros Malaty. (Malaty 1986, 127-146)

 

With that, the orthodox Christian understanding, possibility number three, that Christ’s divinity and humanity are distinct but not separate, was firmly established. Ever since then Christians have said that there was one person, but two natures, one divine, the other human, in Christ.

 

It is noteworthy that it took four General Councils of the Church and a span of one hundred twety-six years, from 389 to 451, to define the orthodox faith about Jesus and to declare the opposed views to be heresies. Equally noteworthy is that these councils, and all the early General Councils of the Church, took place in the eastern remnant of the Roman Empire. At that time there was far more intellectual life, including theological analysis, in the eastern part of the Empire than there wss in the western part. The Bishops of Rome sent delegates to the councils and agreed with the decisions, to be sure, but had little to do with formulating them.

 

D.        Manichaeism

 

The most widespread and long lasting of all Christian Dualisms, Manichaeism, originated with Mani, who was born in Babylon about 216 and died there around 276. He traveled widely, reaching Turkestan and India, where, it is suggested, Buddhism may have influenced his thinking. (Chadwick 1967, 169) His followers spread his religion as far as Spain on the west China on the east. There is evidence that it persevered in China in a form affected by the major Chinese religions, Taoism and Buddhism, down to the twentieth century. (www.cais-soas.com [2012])  In the west, however, the Manichee community faded away with the classical world by the sixth century. Its name, however, never died out on the Christian West. When heterodoxies arose that put “stress on flight from the world, a will to purity, a positive repugnance for the material and for human flesh and its desires” they were labelled Manichaean. (Lambert 2002, 38)

 

The Manichaean worldview was of mythic Dualism and its two opposed Gods. Like the Mandaeans of the previous chapter, the Manichaeans strongly emphasised the contrast between light and darkness, between “The ruler of the realm of light, which is located in the North... [and] Darkness or Hylē (matter), which is located in the South... .” (Rudolph 1983, 336) "… the domain of Light extended infinitely upward; that of Darkness, infinitely downward." (Jackson 1931, 8) When the practice of Mithraism was condemned in the Christianized empire, its sun-worshippers often became Manichees, for this enabled them to maintain their Mithraic light worship.

 

Mani, like other Dualists, did not accept the Hebrew Scriptures’ account of history, and he denied that Jesus died on the cross. He preached a rigid asceticism, including condemnation of marriage, but only the minority of elect people were held to the strict standards. On the whole his teaching was like that of the Zoroastrians, who nevertheless attacked the Manicheans “for their condemnation of material property, agriculture and cattle-raising.”  (Obolensky 1948, 13)

 

Augustine of Hippo; Manichees, Donatist, Pelagians. Many, many descriptions of Manichee beliefs and practices can be found in the works of their archenemy, Augustine, Bishop of Hippo in North Africa. In his Confessions he tells us that he followed the Manichaeans from his nineteenth to his twenty-eighth year. The Confessions, as well as the volumes Of the Morals of the Catholic Church, Of the Morals of the Manichaeans, Against the Epistle of Manichaeus Called Fundamental, Reply to Faustus the Manichaean, Concerning the Nature of Good: Against the Manichaeans, and chapter 46 of De Haeresibus, furnish as much information about fifth century Manichaeans as one might desire, although he wrote about them rhetorically, as a polemicist, not as an historian.

 

Endowed with a powerful intellect and great facility with language, Augustine fought not only Manichaeans, but also Donatists and Pelagians. The controversy with Donatists, who maintained that the sacraments of the Church could not be validly administered by sinful clergy, was more social than doctrinal in nature, and need not concern us here, but the matter contended with Pelagius touched upon Dualism. Pelagius, a monk from the Britain,  contemporary of Augustine, maintained that human nature was essentially good in spite of Bible indications that it is corrupt (“original sin”). According to Pelagius, we humans are not born with original sin, we do not need to be baptized, and we are able to be moral and act morally without the “push” from God that we call “grace.” Pelagius’s teachings were condemned by the Council of Carthage in 418, to a great extent through the efforts of Augustine. In the same year Pope Zosimus ratified the council’s definitions and sent copies out to the bishops everywhere, imposing the definitions as dogma. In our day they are still part of the common patrimony of Christianity held by both Catholics and Protestants.

 

Although the doctrine that Augustine asserted and which became official in the Church is far from any of the types of Dualism we have seen above, it is not above being accused of having a touch of Dualism in it. In Augustine’s case it appears that there remained in him something of the Manichee, for his confidence in human nature was very low.

 

The same pessimism shows in Augustine’s treatment of the topic of predestination. And so,” ...though he broke with the Manichaeans... [Augustine] retained their underlying conviction that a very few were elected to salvation, whereas the great mass of people were destined for eternal damnation.” (Lee 1987, 162) He believed in an Elect, people chosen by God in a "predestination which is antecedent to all differences of merit." (Chadwick 1967, 232) Predestination and its gloomy consequences were to remain topics for Christians to consider long after Augustine was gone.

 

E.        Minor groups

 

As Christianity gained in strength, becoming not only the official religion of the Roman Empire, but also the totally predominant one in the Western world, many aberrations from the generally accepted norms occurred here and there.  A couple of examples will be sufficient to illustrate the phenomenon.

 

Priscillians In the fourth century Priscillian, a priest, then bishop, in Spain led a deviant Christian church there. He taught a rigid asceticism and his followers refrained from marriage and meat-eating. Although it is clear that he was condemned as a Gnostic and Manichaean and put to death, exasperatingly few facts are known about him. His church survived him into the next century.

 

Euchites or Messalians These extreme ascetics originated in Mesopotamia in the fourth century and spread west into Asia Minor. “The Euchites were wandering ‘holy men’...and [professed] an antinomianism [libertism, amoralism] that often expressed itself in anarchic eroticism.” (Cohn 1970, 151) They rejected the sacraments, and "disbelieved in the Real Presence in the Eucharist." (Obolensky 1948, 49) In place of the sacrament of baptism with water, they spoke of a kind of spiritual baptism which was required for salvation, and they "selected the Lord's Prayer, which they recited ceaselessly to the point of vertigo and even unconsciousness..." (LacarriŹre 1977, 108) "For those of them, however, who had succeeded in finally driving out the demon, sin was no longer possible...Extreme asceticism and extreme immorality thus appear as equally characteristic of the behaviour of these heretics." (Obolensky 1948, 50) They were condemned by the Council of Ephesus, but they did not disappear completely until the seventh century.