Heresy in the Early Church: A Gallery of Malcontents for Christ
The mixed motives and odd teachings of four notorious heretics
July 1, 1996
(2nd century A.D.)
From papal candidate to leading Gnostic
A brilliant theologian who taught in Alexandria, Egypt (the Oxford of his day), Valentinus moved to Rome in about A.D. 136 and quickly became a candidate for pope, then known as bishop of Rome. Not only was he not elected, he was excommunicated when he later emerged as leader of a heresy known as Gnosticism, which taught that only a select few receive gnosis (“knowledge” in Greek) from God about how to find salvation.
With this conviction, Valentinus proceeded to reinterpret the Bible—misinterpret, charged critics such as Irenaeus and Tertullian. For Valentinus, the most important lessons of Scripture came not from the obvious meaning but from the symbolism beneath the words. This method of biblical interpretation, called allegory, allowed Valentinus to create elaborate stories and teachings that blurred the lines between Christianity, mysticism, philosophy, and Judaism.
To the Genesis sketch of Creation, for example, Valentinus added a number of details. Throughout the ages, according to Valentinus, God produced 15 spiritual couples who personified divine characteristics such as goodness and truth. One being, Sophia (Greek for “wisdom”), rejected her partner because her only passion was to know everything about God. By herself she conceived and gave birth to a deformed child, whom she named Ialdabaoth (probably meaning “Child of Chaos”). Out of the elements of creation, her son (the diety portrayed in the Old Testament) produced the dark world of humanity and infused it with numbness toward God. Jesus, God’s great revelator, came to awaken people to the “deep things of God.”
For Valentinus and other Gnostics, there was no mixing of the spiritual world with the physical. Thus they rejected the incarnation, crucifixion, and bodily resurrection of Jesus.
Valentinianism endured merciless polemics by the church fathers for the first few centuries A.D. then faded into oblivion—until 1945.
Until then, all we knew of Valentinus came from his critics. But among the 52 documents recovered from the ruins of what was perhaps a Gnostic monastery near Nag Hammadi, Egypt, is a book written by Valentinus or his followers. Called The Gospel of Truth, it reads like a sermon and draws on the Gospels and the writings of Paul.
Fought for a pure church a little too hard
It was the spring of 251, and the Roman bishop was dead—martyred by Romans in a new wave of persecution. But raiders from the north were temporarily diverting the empire’s attention, so Christians were breathing a sigh of relief. Two issues immediately confronted church leaders: (1) Who should they elect as the new bishop of Rome? (2) What should they do about “lapsed Christians,” those who renounced their faith during persecution?
Novatian was the leading churchman in Rome, a brilliant theologian, and the obvious choice for pope. But he wasn’t elected, perhaps because of his unpopular, hard-line position about the lapsed. He said they could never be readmitted to the church, and he invoked the words of Jesus: “Whoever denies me before men, I also will deny before my Father who is in heaven.”
Cyprian, bishop of Carthage, a major North African city, did not agree. He called Novatian “a foe to mercy, a destroyer of repentance.” The influential African bishop supported Cornelius, who was elected pope. Cornelius believed that the lapsed could be reinstated to the church by repenting and doing penance based on the seriousness of the offense. Christians who had offered sacrifices on Roman altars drew the stiffest penance.
Local supporters of Novatian rallied around their man and elected him pope. Cornelius promptly excommunicated him. Both men courted recognition of church leaders abroad. In the process, Novatian’s followers evolved into a separate church, with bishops and congregations throughout the empire.
Novatian fled Rome during renewed persecution that began in late 251. Remaining true to his beliefs, he died a martyr during yet another round of persecutions some seven years later. Novatian’s church endured for about four centuries, until Muslim invaders swept westward and slaughtered those who refused to convert to Islam.
Paul of Samosata
(Bishop of Antioch, c. 260–268)
From his humble beginnings in the village of Samosata, in what is now southern Turkey, Paul developed into a church leader who moonlighted for mammon. When he was elected bishop of Antioch (in modern Syria), he was the chief financial officer for Queen Zenobia of Palmyra.
Somehow he amassed a fortune. His critics said it was through accepting bribes. Whatever the source of the money, he quickly earned a reputation as the luxury-loving bishop—at least according to early church critics, who were known to exaggerate the immorality of heretics.
But it wasn’t only this behavior, condemned as unbecoming of a bishop, that generated three church conferences in five years but his theology. Paul apparently believed that Jesus was no more God than were the prophets, and for this reason he forbade the singing of hymns to Jesus. Jesus, the bishop preached, was “an ordinary man” on whom “the Word came and dwelt,” not one worthy of worship.
Paul’s critics said the bishop understood the Trinity as a union of the Father, Wisdom (Spirit), and the Word (Logos). Wisdom and the Word reside within the Father, Paul said, as reason resides within humanity. Wisdom and the Word are not separate persons, he explained; they subsist within the Father. Paul said it was God’s gift of the Word that uniquely inspired and empowered Jesus.
The bishop evaded the questions the first two councils asked him, but members of a council in 268 managed to wrangle enough answers out of him to convince the majority that he was, in fact, a heretic. They deposed him and elected a new bishop.
The queen, however, had other plans. A staunch ally of Paul, she retained him as bishop. Four years later, when Rome defeated the queen, the Roman commander forced Paul to resign and banished him from the city. Disciples of Paul, called Paulianists and Samosatines, worshiped as a sect until most joined the theologically kindred Arians in the following century.
(c. 354-after 418)
He battled lax morals with bad theology
When the British monk Pelagius moved to Rome in about 380, he didn’t like what he saw. Professing Christians, consumed by their desire for luxury and wealth, felt no shame in offering and accepting bribes. Their passion for materialism was matched by their apathy toward spiritual matters, such as godly living.
Brilliant and strong-minded Pelagius thought these warped ethics grew naturally out of the prevailing theology, which emphasized God’s grace and asserted that human beings are incapable of holy living. Pelagius and his followers argued otherwise.
Emphasizing the free will that God gave humanity, Pelagians rejected predestination as well as original sin, the belief that the sin of Adam and Eve spiritually contaminated the human race. They taught that the sin of Adam and Eve affected only them, and that human beings are born without sin and with the freedom to choose their own path in life.
Many theologians, like Jerome and Augustine, respected Pelaguis’s life and intent. Pelagius, himself a devout monk, convinced many wealthy Romans to do as he had done and forsake their possessions.
But as Pelagianism spread, it became an increasing problem for the church, and the aging Augustine worked fervently to stop it. At risk, believed Augustine, was the doctrine of grace. If humans are born without sin, what is the need for God’s grace? And why not let humanity save itself by exercising free will and choosing to live the holy life? The biblical scholar Jerome joined Augustine in condemning Pelagius, calling him a “corpulent dog … weighed down with … porridge.”
Pope Innocent I excommunicated Pelagius in 417. Though the monk was briefly restored by the new pope, Zosimus, in 418, Zosimus encountered such a storm from African bishops, where Augustine lived, that he changed his mind and wrote a letter condeming the Briton.
Pelagius disappeared from history, though his teachings endured for another century. The issues raised by Pelagianism reappeared many times in the Middle Ages and broke out afresh during the Reformation.
Copyright © 1996 by the author or Christianity Today/Christian History magazine.
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