Christian Heresy

One of the primary problems of early Christianity was that of heresy.

Heresy is generally defined as a departure from the traditional Christian beliefs; the creation of new ideas, rituals and forms of worship within the Christian church. This was especially dangerous to a new faith whose proper beliefs remained very vague and open to interpretation during its infancy.


The gnostics were a sect older than Christianity itself. They had already used Jewish faith as a basis with which they mixed many eastern myths as well as Greek philosophy (gnosis = knowledge).

Due to the multitude of influences, gnosticism varied largely in its forms. With the emergence of Christianity bits and pieces of Christian faith were integrated into gnosticism.

The main differences with Christianity and gnostic belief were that god, who was purely good, could not have created the world, as the world contained evil. Hence gnosticism created a mythology much like Greek mythology in which numerous other forces were the children of god. These children in turn created our world. One such child was Christ who descended to earth to share his knowledge, some secret knowledge of which the gnostics claimed to be only part of their religion (the unwritten, verbal knowledge passed on by Christ). Also associated with gnosticism are the beliefs that all matter was evil, including the human body and that Christs’ divine spirit only descended into the man Jesus with his baptism and left him before his crucifiction, leaving the man, not the Messiah to suffer on the cross.

The greatest challenge to traditional Christianity posed by gnosticism was by Marcion (AD 100-160). The son of a bishop, probably even a bishop himself, Marcion came to Rome somewhen after AD 138. With his expulsion from the church for heresy, his followers formed themselves into a separate body, calling themselves the Marcionites, though they are also known as the first Dissenters.

Gnosticism survived long into the middle ages, and echoes of it are still to be heard in the teachings of the current day theosophical movement. (Marcionism survived until about the fifth century AD.)


Montanism is named after its founder Montanus, though the movement is also known as the Phrygians. The sect was founded in about AD 156 by Montanus in Phrygia (a small province in Turkey). The movement was a response to what Montanus saw as the relaxation in Christian zeal by the church itself. All his followers, not merely the priests, were discouraged from marriage. Second marriages were absolutely forbidden. Martyrdom was invited, any followers who declined a chance of martyrdom was condemned. Also harsh regimes of fasting were followed.

The sect also was convinced that the end of the world was imminent and that Christ was to return in the immediate future.

One can’t help but still feel today, on reading such broad details about this sect, that there was a strong air of fanaticism about this group.

The movement continued until the sixth century when emperor Justinian vehemently suppressed it. Loyal to their creed, as well as fanatical, the montanists of Constantinople rather committed suicide than surrender. They gathered in their churches and then set light to them, perishing in the flames.


The challenge to Christianity posed by monarchianism was very subtle in nature.

Though despite this apparent subtlety monarchianism would be of great influence upon Christianity as well as the Roman empire, for it is generally understood to have been responsible for the subsequent rise of Arianism.

There are two main versions of monarchianism,- dynamic and modalistic monarchianism.

Dynamic monarchianism stated that Jesus was an ordinary man, in whom had been placed a divine power by god (dynamis is Greek for ‘power’). Sometimes dynamic monarchianists are called adoptionists as they claimed that the divine power descended upon Christ at his baptism and again after his resurrection.this form of monarchianism first came into the world through Theodotus (or theodorus), a tanner in Constantinople, who insisted that Christ was a simple man. Theodotus was excommunicated in AD 198, but disciples of his would continue the battle for some time to come.

Modalistic monarchianism claimed that the trinity were three modes, different aspects of god. God, they believed, would manifest himself as the father, the son and as the holy spirit, whenever he found it necessary.

Modalist monarchianism is perhaps best attributable to Praxeas of Asia Minor and Noetus, the Bishop of Smyrna. It made its way to Rome in the form of Sabellianism (due to Sabellius of Pentapolis in Cyrenaica)and for some time did not clash with traditional teaching and the papacy.

But some time into the reign of pope Callistus (AD 217-222) the modalists lost favour. Sabellius and his followers were excomminucated. Despite this the movement survived and even tried to set up its own church and bishop in Rome.

After Sabellius’ death in AD 257 modalistic monarchianism continued to flourish, particularly in the east in his homeland of Cyrenaica. There some bishops even became Sabellians.

Though just as modalistic monarchianism was being clamped down upon by the papacy, the dynamic form of monarchianism renewed its challenge.

Paul of Samosata, the Bishop of Antioch AD 260-272, preached that Jesus was a common man.

Councils of bishops were called in AD 264 and AD 268 and Paul of Samosata was condemned as a heretic.

The council then for the first time appealed to civil powers of the emperor to aid it, setting a dangerous precedent for the future.

Paul of Samosata though managed to hold on to his office as he enjoyed the support of Queen Zenobia.

However with the victory of emperor Aurelian over Zenobia and the subsequent destruction of the Palmyrene empire, Paul was swept aside.

Despite its defeat by the traditional church, monarchianism survived in the eastern part of the empire for many years. And the monarchian type of thinking is largely seen as responsible for the next heresy to come along – arianism.


Arius was a priest in Alexandria, who eventually should create a storm which should rock the very fundament of Christendom. It all began as he protested against what he called the Sabellianism of his bishop, Alexander of Alexandria. Arius claimed that to teach that both the father and the son had always been, was to claim them as being one and the same thing; hence he accused his bishop of being a monarchian.

What arose was a large scale quarrel throughout the church if the father had been there before the son, or if he had created him. More so, both sides claimed the other as being heretic.

Alexander now called a council of 100 bishops from Egypt and Libya. Arius was condemned and excommunicated.

But Arius in turn had already sought to find support in Palestine and Asia Minor. Councils of Bishops in Bithynia and Palestine decided the councils called by Alexander to have been wrong and reinstated Arius. It was eventually emperor Constantine who, after re-uniting the empire and championing the cause of the Christians, called for the famous council of Nicaea where no less than 300 bishops, together with hundreds of other clergy were gathered to decide this problem.

The immediate result of this council was the Caesarian Creed, which overruled the Arians. But most of the creeds defined in the Caesarian code could be accommodated by the Arians, by re-interpreting the words into a different meaning.

More so, in AD 327 Arius was re-instated by emperor Constantine and Eusebius of Nicomedia, perhaps Arius’ closest ally, was not only recalled from exile but became one of Constantine’s advisors.

In effect the emperor had reversed his decision.

Several of the bishops who had brought about the Caesarian creed were deposed. With Constantine’s two years after the demise of Arius followed a confused period, which even saw the return of a pagan emperor to the throne (Julian the Apostate). The confusion lasted for years until eventually the emperor Theodosius ascended to the eastern throne. He at once began to impose the views of the Caesarian creed concluded at teh council of Nicaea. He rid himself of the Arian bishop of Constantinople, Gregory Nazianzus and convened the second great council, this time in Constantinople itself in AD 381. Here the so-called Nicene Creed was defined. In essence it was the same as the Caesarian, but with minor changes. Together with his main ally, Ambrose, Bishop of Milan, Theodosius pushed the Arians out of office and by the end of Theodosius’ reign the Nicene Creed was the official religion of the Roman world.

But Arianism survived for a long time, no small thanks to having a strong foothold within the new kingdoms of the Germanic tribes. Only by the eight century had Arianism finally disappeared.


The heresy of Apollinarianism is named after Apollinarius, bishop of Antioch.

From about AD 360 onwards his theory that Christ had no human soul or spirit, but a divine one, began circulate among the Christian thinkers. It was an attempt by Appolinarius to reason that Jesus was free of sin, purely divine.

This led to a series of edicts by church councils which condemned Apollinarianism as heresy.

It was found that Apollinarius’ idea of a Christ without a human soul, made his suffering meaningless, turned his prayers into a charade. Only if Christ also possessed a human soul and spirit could he have suffered temptation, etc.

Apollinarianism was not at all of the threat to traditional Christianity as Arianism was. The many edicts against it suppressed it early on and it merely survived until the AD 420’s.


Nestorianism claimed that Jesus was host to two separate persons, that of the son of god and that of a mortal man. It was as such a direct response to Apollinarianism.

Also Nestorianus, in an attempt to dispell arianism, disputed the description of ‘Mother of God’ for Mary. Namely because this title indicated that, if Christ was born of her, he had to be younger than her. As he was eternal as god, Mary could only be the mother of Jesus, the man.

It is said that Theodore of Mopsuestia was most likely the first nestorian. Although it only came to prominence after his death and under his pupil Nestorius who gave name to the heresy.

Nestorius, intially a mere monk in Antioch, later became a priest and a very talented preacher, eventually being summoned by emperor Theodosius II to become Patriarch of Constantinople. In this position he was a stubborn zealot seeking out heresy wherever he could. Though Cyril, the bishop of Alexandria was his determined opponent, who soon should challenge his views on Christ in a lengthy battle of minds, in which each should seek to gain the backing of the pope.

Emperor Theodosius II first tried in vain to bring the sides together at council at Ephesus. But this failed completely. there was, so it seemed, no other way to end the quarrel other than deposing Nestorius from office. And so he was ousted from his position of patriarch and exiled first to a Syrian monastery then to the Egyptian desert, where he died in AD 451.

Nestorianism though proved a success to the east of the Roman empire. Missions were opened in neighbouring regions such as Persia as well as far away places such as India and perhaps even China.

After initial successes nestorianism went into gradual decline in Asia, though it has survived in scattered remnants until this day in Iraq, Iran, the United States and perhaps South India.

Eutychianism (Monophysitism)

In the fifth century a heresy emerged which in essence possessed many similarities with the earlier heresy of Apollinarianism.

Eutyches was the head of a large monastery near Constantinople and possessed had good contacts at court. His heresy arose as he openly disagreed with the definition of the Christian creed of AD 433 in its condemnation of Nestorianism. He believed that it was a compromise with that heresy and hence that the church was guilty of Nestorianism itself.

Instead he developed a creed of his own which claimed that Christ did not possess two natures (divine and human), but that Christ was of two natures. In his view Christ had merged the two natures into one. Though the result of this merger was that Christ’s soul was fully divine, equal to the father, but not equal to man. It had added human attributes to Jesus, but still, in essence, left him being a god.

The difference between Eutychianism and the Apollinarian heresy of the previous century is indeed only very subtle.

Eutyches’ case was argued at a synode at Constantinople. He was found guilty of heresy and was deposed from his office and excommunicated.

But Eutyches now made use of his connections at court and persuaded the emepror Theodosius II to call another council of bishops. In AD 449 a council packed with supporters of Eutyches (later nicknamed the ‘Robber Council’) gathered at Ephesus. But it went much further than merely reinstating Eutyches. It excommunicated the pope !

But naturally this was not to be the end of matters, the western part of the church, together with the western court of Valentinian III, supported pope Leo who refused to stand down. In AD 451 a great council was called at Chalcedon at which nearly six hundred bishops attended.

A creed, condemning Apollinarianism, Nestorianism and Eutychianism, was finally agreed.

But eutychianism did not die. It survived under the name of Monophysitism, the eastern dominions of the Empire largely turning to it, instead of traditional Christianity. Several eastern emperors were in fact Monophysites, emperor Basiliscus even publishing a work in which he condemned both the council of Chalcedon and the ‘Tome of Leo’ (the creed agreed at the council).

Later emperor Zeno attempted to reconcile the two sides, condemning Eutyches, but favouring the monophysite view. However, both sides rejected this.

And so the heresy survived, spawning several variations along the way, which in their essence though varied very little from the initial Eutychian view. They are often referred to as the ‘allied heresies’ to Eutychianism and are generally referred to under the overall term of monophysitism.

Monophysitism continued to prosper in the east but was eventually stunted by the invasion of most of the eastern dominions by the forces of Islam.

Though the Moslem rulers did not forbid the practice of monophysite Christianity and so it has continued to co-exist in a small form alongside Islam to this day in countries like Syria, Egypt and Ethiopia.


Pelagianism was a heresy altogether different than the other major heresies to occupy religious minds during the time of the late Roman empire. Had previous heresies tried to provide alternative faiths on the holy trinity, then Pelagianism concerned itself with man.

Pelagius, a monk from Britain, gave rise to the heresy. He came to Rome in about AD 390 where he should meet the laywer Coeletius (possibly from Ireland) and Julian, the Bishop of Eclanum in Campania. Together these three men should become the figure heads of the Pelagian heresy.

In their view every child was born absolutely innocent, free of what the traditional church called ‘the original sin’. In effect this menat that to Pelagius Christ was not a saviour who took Adam’s original sin upon himself, but merely a teacher who gave mankind an example of what man should be.

Man could, by discipline and will-power alone leed a righteous life, without the help of god. The traditional view was that to do any good, man needed the ‘grace of god’.

Particularly the latter view embarassed the church, as it revealed a unresolved problem; that of man’s free will. If god’s grace is needed for man to do good, then he cannot do so without god’s will. Hence it begs the questoin if man had free will, or if he sinned and did good, only when god wanted him to.

Pelagius insisted man needed not god’s grace, but could act on his own behalf, for good as well as evil.

At first these views went either largely unnoticed or didn’t arouse any anger from the church. It was only once Pelagius had left Rome (due to the capture of the ciry by Alaric in AD 410) and left for the east, that his heresy caused controversy. In fact his ally Coelestius was excommunicated as early as AD 412 in Carthage. Though with Pelagius himself the situation remained confused. A council of bishops in AD 415 declared him innocent of heresy. But three later councils shortly aftewards found him guilty. Pope Innocent I confirmed the view that Pelagius was a heretic, but his successor Zozimus, declared him innocent. Yet a year later Zozimus reversed his decision and declared Pelagius a heretic. The western emperor Honorius eventually also spoke out against him. Alas, later popes condemned Pelagius, too.

To what extent the heresy survived is not documented. Though one can surely state that Pelagianism is still with us today. Most Christian parents would struggle to see their new born infant as anything but innocent, and few of them would think they did not possess the free will.