Heresies and Schisms in the Second Century

Key Points During this Time

  • Early Christianity was characterized by a certain variety in belief and practice
  • A strategic and gifted administrator, Marcion led an effective movement that rejected Christianity’s Jewish roots, distinguished the creator god from the redeemer god, emphasized asceticism, and advocated an authoritative canon of Scripture based mainly on portions of Paul’s writings
  • In the 2nd century, Gnostic movements developed systems of belief that interacted and competed with catholic Christianity, combining Jewish, Christian, and pagan beliefs
  • In an attempt to achieve a philosophical-religious solution to the problem of evil, Gnostic groups taught complex cosmologies that tended to involve extreme dualism, a strong rejection of matter as evil, and redeemer myths
  • In rejecting Gnosticism, “orthodox” Christianity affirmed the oneness of God, the essential goodness of creation, the full incarnation of Jesus Christ, and bodily resurrection
  • Largely in response to perceived worldliness and formalization of the church, Montanism arose as an exuberant movement stressing prophecy, rigorous ethics, and eschatological enthusiasm
  • Encratism describes a tendency in some Christian circles towards extreme asceticism
  • The appeal to existing standards of belief and practice suggests that “orthodoxy” in some sense existed prior to Christian “heresy”

Summary

In the struggle to define boundaries of belief and practice, the early church grappled with the diversity to be found among those claiming to follow Christ. Early Christian doctrinal self-understanding took shape partly in response to these challenges. For instance, the wealthy shipbuilder Marcion rejected the Jewish roots of Christianity, teaching that the creator god and redeemer god are separate and that the savior Jesus is to be understood in a Docetic manner. He contended that Paul was the only true Apostle and put forward a canon of Scripture based on Paul that was highly selective and heavily edited. Despite the Roman church’s rejection of his teaching in 144, he effectively organized a movement of many Marcionite churches.

Gnosticism is an umbrella term that covers a number of different groups and teachings interacting with Christianity in the second and third centuries. Although our knowledge of Gnosticism was limited due to the shortage of ancient sources, modern discoveries have enriched our knowledge greatly—particularly the find in 1945 of a number of original Gnostic texts at Nag Hammadi in Egypt. Gnosticism drew on pre-Christian, Jewish, and Christian ideas, synthesizing them into fully developed Gnostic systems by the second century. Different teachers promoted distinct systems, each group being defined by its favored myth of origins, its sense of group identity, and its insider language. Common features included an account of a “fall” in the spiritual realm that resulted in the creation of matter, which is evil. A “redeemer” imparts knowledge (Gnosis) to save those with a spiritual nature, so that they may escape their material prison and be reunited with the divine in the spiritual realm. Valentinus was the most influential Gnostic teacher, but there were many teachers and groups. To escape material entanglement, most followed an ascetic ethic, though some may have been libertine instead. With its streamlined dualism and elitist mentality, Gnosticism’s mythological and philosophical answer to the problem of evil proved attractive to many in the Greco-Roman culture. In response, “orthodox” Christians taught that the creator God is the one true God and that creation is good. They insisted on the full incarnation of Christ and the salvific importance of his bodily death, the significance of history in revelation, and the resurrection of the body. Out of this conflict, a number of important lessons may be found for today’s church.

Montanus, Priscilla, and Maximilla began a prophetic movement in the churches of Phrygia in the 150s or 170s. Believing themselves to be the voices of the Holy Spirit (the Paraclete), the Montanists of “the New Prophecy” preached judgment, seeking to convict the established church of moral laxness and compromise with the surrounding culture. The movement may be seen partly as a reaction to growing institutionalism of the church in the generations following the Apostles. Montanism did not teach different doctrines, but their ascetic rigors and disruptive tendencies prompted negative reactions. The first known synods of bishops met in order to deal with the problem. Focusing on matters of authority, the synods emphasized the importance of Scripture and the place of bishop as authoritative teacher, resulting in the Montanists being declared as schismatic.

Encratism” describes a movement or tendency among some early Christians towards extreme asceticism. Many surviving apocryphal texts promote asceticism and the Syriac church (e.g. Tatian) was characterized by this tendency. A contemporary debate considers whether “orthodoxy” may be understood to have preceded “heresy,” or whether early Christianity was simply highly diverse at its origins. Though early diversity and a legacy of development are undeniable, the ability of the orthodox to make plausible appeals to existing standards indicates that there were inherited norms of belief and practice.

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