Introduction to early church history of Catholic Church 6

Introduction to early church history 6
 Jean Paul

Internal problems in the Church

There were three main groups that challenge the church - these groups considered themselves to be truly Christian.


This group believed that salvation came through knowledge.  At the end of the 2nd Century Clement of Alexandria quotes a Gnostic known as Theodotus: “We know where we came from, we know what we have become, we know where we were, we know were we have been placed, we know whither we hasten…….”.

So he who has knowledge where he came from and where he is going.

The name of this group is based on the Greek word for knowledge (gnosis).

There were a number of different groups each of which had its own system and mythology.

Overall:  Gnosticism believed that our origin was as part of the divine milieu (where we were), and that part of us that was divine remains divine.  We have become material beings in this world, our destination is to go back to the divine.

The Gnostics had a belief in a circular reality.  The material world, and our presence in it, is the result of a mistake.  There still exists within us a divine part - known as a ‘spark’.  This doesn’t come from baptism or the sacraments but from our very nature (it is part of our origin).

Our redemption to the Gnostics is from the matter, which the Gnostics regarded as evil.  Anything encased in matter has become part of the material world - this is the process of our birth.  Rebirth means that we shed our material side and return to our origin as part of the divine milieu.

There were some complex myths based around these ideas.  One example Sophia (wisdom) wanted to know more about the Father to do this she tried to produce something that was outside of the divine milieu, and in the process destroyed herself, this was the origin of matter.  The origin of matter was therefore regarded as a mistake and our being part of the material world was as a result of that mistake.  We therefore need to escape from matter and return to the divine, our rebirth.

Behind all of this is the Greek notion that only the soul would survive death - the idea of bodily resurrection was rejected by many of the Greeks.  To them the body, being matter, was unredeemable.

The Saviour then brings salvation by reawakening the knowledge of who we were, and were we would be going to.  This is the knowledge of the cycle of birth and rebirth.

There were many different systems of belief, the main ones were: Basilides and Valentinus.  More has been learnt about the systems of Gnosticism in the 20th Century after the discovery of some manuscripts hidden beneath the floor of a monastic library.

For the Gnostics one you have knowledge of the true nature of the world, our place in it, and our final destination it makes no difference how you behave and this influenced their moral behaviour.  This led to there being two groups of Gnostics: rigorists and libertines.

The rigorists felt that you should do everything possible to dominate and even annihilate the flesh - as it is evil.  This group were great fasters and aesthetics - they were trying to escape from the flesh.

The libertines on the other hand had fun.  It didn’t matter what you did so you could do whatever you wanted.  The God of the Old Testament had created matter and therefore couldn’t be the true God, they thought of Him as a figure that had persuaded Himself He was God.  Based on this they rejected the Old Testament and felt that the more you could break the commandments the better.  To them the creator was a deluded figure that had perpetuated the imprisonment of the divine ‘spark’ in matter.

Overall then everything depends on knowledge and once you know you are saved.  This is present in the modern world - a lot of the new age movements are a modern disguise for Gnosticism.

The book A New Eusibius has lots of extracts from the various Gnostics.  Their belief was a mixture of philosophy, elements of the Old and New Testaments and fantasy.

Gnosticism was Greek thought and philosophy taking over Christianity completely - basically a radical Hellenisation.


Marcion was from Sinope in Northern Asia Minor.  There are some claims that he was the son of a bishop - but this was probably part of an attempted to discredit him.

His theology was very anti-Judaism he wanted to eliminate anything that had anything to do with Judaism in Christian teaching.  He though that the original message of Christ had been coloured more and more by Judaism.  Christ’s message had been distorted by later additions from Jews.

He strove to remove all Jewish influence from Church teaching - but was also faced with the Old and New Testament. 

Old Testament: 
Marcion felt that the God of the Old Testament could not be the Father of Christ.  The creator God of the Old Testament was just, but He was also judicial and so was not the God of love that Jesus had proclaimed.

This led Marcion to the idea that there were two gods - the good and loving God who was the Father of Jesus, and the harsh, judgemental God of the Old Testament.  To Marcion the God of the Old Testament was the author of evil, who loved warfare, was inconsistent with His judgement and in His opinions.

Marcion wrote a book called Antitheses (contradictions) which showed the inconsistencies of the Old Testament and also how different from the Gospel that it was.

This diversity of gods led Marcion to completely exclude the Old Testament from his version of Christianity.

New Testament:
Marcion was faced with the fact that this also contains Jewish and pro-Jewish elements.  To deal with this he completely removed the Gospels of Matthew, Mark and John.  He rewrote the Gospel of Luke to remove anything Jewish - including removing the generation of Jesus from the Jewish line in the genealogy, he also removed anything to do with Jesus referring to the God of the Old Testament as His Father.

He removed all of the non-Pauline letters from the New Testament. Marcion then edited the epistles of Paul to remove all reference to the creator God and anything else to do with the God of the Old Testament being the Father of Jesus, Marcion also removed all of the Old Testament scripture references that Paul had put in.

Marcion was left with truncated versions of the Gospel of Luke and the Pauline letters.  He thought of himself as the discoverer of the true Gospel, and of being more worthy of credit than those that had written the Gospels as they had allowed the message to be distorted by Jewish teaching.

In excluding the Old Testament and anything remotely Jewish in the New Testament Marcion was excluding the creator God and this led to the idea that everything to do with the world was evil (he actually claimed that the God of Christ actually created the world but that the Old Testament God had claimed credit for it).

Marcion’s anti-Semitism struck a chord with many people in the ancient world, as indeed it does today.  Marcion’s version of Christianity was ant-Semitic with no link back to Judaism. 

Marcion thought of himself as a true disciple of Paul - he thought he could see the true teaching of Paul that had been distorted by the Jewish influence.  So for Marcion he knew better than those that had put together the New Testament corpus. 
In 140AD he went to Rome.  His doctrine was regarded as too radical and he was excommunicated in 142AD.  Marcion was an excellent organiser and he used this to set up a rival version of the church - that mirrored the structure of the main Church with its bishops and presbyters.  This allowed Marcion’s ideas to survive for a number of centuries - when Ephraim visited Edessa in 360AD the main community was Marcion, it was so bad that non-Marcionic Christians felt unable to use the term Christian as it had been appropriated by the Marcionists. 


Montanus wanted to recreate the good old-time religion, he thought that the Church had lost its vigour.  He looked backwards to the very early Church and saw that the Church of his day lacked some of the characteristics of the early Church, in particular the early Church emphasised the Spirit and was filled with the Spirit in all its actions, it also lived in expectation of the Eschaton (the end times).

Montanus wanted to bring the Church back to the sense of being filled with the Spirit, and to live in the immediate expectation of the end of time.  He laid great emphasis on prophecy and was aided and abetted by two prophetesses: Prisca/Priscilla and Maximilla.  There prophecy was ecstatic in that they went into trances - similar to those of the pagan oracles - they sought to speak as instruments of the Spirit (using this ecstatic way rather than as the Old Testament prophets of old).  Montanus may even have claimed to be the incarnation of the Spirit.

Montanus’ teaching divided history into ages:

The age of God the Father - which ended at the incarnation of Jesus.  The age of Jesus Christ which ran from the incarnation to the arrival of Montanus.  The age of the Spirit which started with Montanus.

Montanus felt that he saw something in the past that was no longer present in the Church - his answer was to set up what was essentially the first Pentecostal movement.  The prophecy was used to set a date and place for the end of the world - which would be at Pepuza.  On the date the heavenly Jerusalem would descend from Heaven to the world and start the end times.  Montanus and his followers were Milleniumists - they thought that the start of the end times would be the 1000 year reign of Christ on Earth after which everything would be destroyed and the Last Judgement would happen.

Montanus and his followers felt that they were truly prophets of the Spirit and this led to the idea that they had received a further revelation of the divine will - after the New Testament times.

Montanus was originally from Phrygia a mountainous area, where the people were known to be odd.  Montanism lasts until about 500AD - although similar movements are seen today.

Montanus was both Pentecostal and charismatic and this attracted people.  Even when the original date for the end times to start passed people didn’t lose faith - the group simply recalculated the date.

This belief in the imminance of the end times radically affected their behaviour.  Jesus taught that in the Kingdom of God there would be no taking of wives, and that those with wives should live as if they had none - so the Montanists decided to enforce this immediately, leading to the teaching of compulsory celibacy for all.  They fasted in long and sever ways to prepare for the end times.  Montanism was puritanical and completely rigorist.  It was this rigorism and Puritanism that attracted followers to his ideas.  Even Tertullian, who had been the first writer in Latin from the orthodox side of the Church towards the end of his life left the Church to found a Montanist group.  This appeal is seem today in a number of Pentecostal type groups.

The prophetesses were largely running the organisation and acting as minsters to their church.  The reaction against this in the orthodox Catholic Church was to restrict the role of women in the life of the Church.

How does the church react?

All three of the groups felt that they had a special access to God that was denied to others.  We’ve already seen the writings of the Apologists who were partly attempting to maintain the true teaching of the Church.  Through their writing and in other ways the Church’s response was a three pronged attack:
1)  Tradition - that the teaching was from the Apostles and was held in succession from them.  All three parts of this are important: that which is handed down to us (tradition) from the Apostles (who heard it from Christ) comes to us through the route of succession (the bishops).
2)  Rule of faith - a short summary of the essential elements of the rule of faith (regula in Latin means a measuring stick - the equivalent in Greek is kanon from which the name of the canon of scripture comes, see 3) below).  So if you want to know the teaching of Christianity there was a short measuring stick against which to read the essential elements of Christianity.
3)  Development of the Canon of Scripture - both the Old and New Testament.  This was to establish against all of the crazy writings a set of texts that are truly inspired in both the Old and New Testament.  This assumes that revelation ends with the New Testament and is designed to answer Montanus and his prophetesses.

This approach can be seen especially in the writings of Irenaus (written from 178 to 200AD) and (when he was orthodox) Tertullian.

Looking at the writing of Irenaus:
1)  Tradition. 
The argument here was based on the Roman Law concerning inheritance.  The fullness of the teaching of Christ and His apostles was held only by those that had rightfully inherited it (the bishops), only they had the right to use that teaching. The Church in Rome was important as it was founded by two Apostles Peter and Paul (in this context it didn’t mean they had been first to preach the Gospel - but that they had shaped and formed the characteristics of the Church), their teaching had been inherited by the Bishops of Rome.   The line of the Bishops of Rome is then traced in the document to show the line of inheritance of those that held the tradition of the Church right up to Irenaus‘ day.  The line of other Bishops back to the Apostles is also traced.
This was a reply to the Gnostics who thought of themselves as elite with secrets hidden from others - the true teaching had been handed down to the Bishops and the idea of secret teaching was specifically dismissed as there had been a number of people present with the Apostles who would have reacted against any attempt to hide some of the teaching.

2)  Rule of faith - Irenaus has two statements of the basic beliefs of Christianity.  These statements, and other similar ones would ultimately lead to the formulation of the Creeds - initially through Baptismal Creeds and then into the formation of Dogmatic Creeds.
3)  Canon of Old Testament and New Testament - Irenaus discusses Bishops going to the Holy land to find out what was to be included in the Old Testament. 
The Muratorian Canon contains a list of the New Testament written in the late 2nd Century contains a list of the books to be included in the Canon and their ordering.  This is only a fragment but seems to suggest that the current format matches the Canon at this time.  It condemns those that add other books to support and reinforce various heresies.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Attention please, all spam comments will be deleted promptly. Please respect each others views and opinions. Do not post Web links..