Front Page
Series Contents
Series Theme: Apologetics
Abbreviated Contents:













1. Main Problems

2. Heresies

3, Effects

4. Main People

5. Summary


















1. Main Problems

2. Heresies

3, Effects

4. Main People

5. Summary













1. Main Problems

2. Heresies

3, Effects

4. Main People

5. Summary











































































































1. Main Problems

2. Heresies

3, Effects

4. Main People

5. Summary







































Title:   13. Questions about the Early Church & HERESIES

                            (The Truth Challenged)


A series that helps consider the foundations for faith

Contents for Overview:


Introductory Comments

•  Heresies in focus. 
1. What were the Main Problems facing the Early Church ?
•  Setting the scene for what follows and an example.
2. Where did the Heresies come from?
•  A simple answer!
3. What effect did these Heresies have?  
•  not all bad!
4. Who were the Main People/Groups Promoting these Heresies?
•  a list of examples

5. Summary


Introductory Comments


On this page we'll be looking at some of the difficulties of the early centuries of the Christian Church, particularly the Heresies that arose and which sought to undermine the Faith in the centuries after Jesus' ascension and the passing of the Twelve.


On the previous pages we saw the persecutions that rose against the Christians, showing that this was a genuine historical movement to be considered, and the competing belief systems that existed in those centuries against which a number of Christian writers wrote.


On the following pages we'll see the people of the early centuries of church history who God used to overcome these problems.


For the time being we focus on the Heresies that arose in those centuries.




1. What were the Main Problems facing the Early Church?




As we noted previously, the centuries following Jesus were characterised by persecutions, competition and heresies


Enemy action




To frighten Christians and those who might be turning to the faith.

The grace of God in the martyrs showed the reality of the faith and many were converted.


Competing Beliefs

To steal away converts or prevent people becoming Christian believers


In fact were revealed as inadequate in the face of Christianity



To distort, confuse and water down the faith.

The struggles against untruth meant the New Testament was written and creeds formulated to establish accepted doctrine.




From Irenaeus Against Heresies Book 1, Chapter 13.-The Deceitful Arts and Nefarious Practices of Marcus.


“ But there is another among these heretics, Marcus by name, who boasts himself as having improved upon his master. He is a perfect adept in magical impostures, and by this means drawing away a great number of men, and not a few women, he has induced them to join themselves to him, as to one who is possessed of the greatest knowledge and perfection, and who has received the highest power from the invisible and ineffable regions above


By its very title Irenaeus tells us that there were already many heresies with which the church had to contend.




2. Where did the Heresies come from?




The simple answer to that is from men! As we'll go down this page we'll see that heresies were the ideas of men grappling with what they thought was the truth.

Unfortunately when these men were not sincerely committed to God, they were left with human reason alone and as a result, often came up with ideas that were far from the truth.

In what follows watch for the men from whom these wrong ideas came. 




3. What Effect did these Heresies have?



Well, as we've indicated above, one might expect them to have led many people astray and even to throw Christianity completely off course. Instead God raised up a variety of leaders who wrestled against these ideas and worked their way to the truth.


Out of this wrestling, God's leaders in the early centuries formulated various creeds that you will find on a later page, coming to theological conclusions that have been accepted by the Church ever since.



4. Who were the main People/Groups promoting these Heresies?



The following are some of the main heresies that arose in this period of the first three centuries:

4.1 The Ebionites    

Ebionites (Heb. Ebyonim, "the Poor Ones") were mostly Jewish ex-disciples of John the baptist, Jesus, or James the Just.

Were said to have embraced poverty and lived in communities and believed in one God.

They taught that Jesus was the Messiah and was the true "prophet" but they rejected the Virgin Birth of Jesus, instead holding that he was the natural son of Joseph and Mary.

They believed Jesus became the Messiah because he obeyed the Jewish Law, which they faithfully followed, although adjusted in order to uphold their teachings, which included vegetarianism, holy poverty, ritual ablutions, and the rejection of animal sacrifices.

Early on they embraced Matthew's Gospel without the birth narrative, but later abandoned that in favour of the Gospel of the Ebionites which no longer exists.

They believed that salvation came through obeying the Law which only Jesus did perfectly and thus became the Christ even though he was only a man.

See Irenaeus Against Heresies written about 170 AD:  Book 1 - ch.26.2

“ Those who are called Ebionites agree that the world was made by God; but their opinions with respect to the Lord are similar to those of Cerinthus and Carpocrates. They use the Gospel according to Matthew only, and repudiate the Apostle Paul, maintaining that he was an apostate from the law. As to the prophetical writings, they endeavour to expound them in a somewhat singular manner: they practise circumcision, persevere in the observance of those customs which are enjoined by the law, and are so Judaic in their style of life, that they even adore Jerusalem as if it were the house of God




4.2 Nicolaus


Nicolaus was the originator of the heresy of the Nicolaitans (see Rev 2:6 in Ephesus and 2:15 in Pergamum) which was also associated with the teaching of Balaam (Rev 2:14) which disdained the Jerusalem Council's restrictions on eating meat offered to idol and on immorality (Acts 15:29, Rev 2:14)


Irenaeus has it that he was the Nicolas from Antioch, one of the deacons mentioned in Acts 6:5 who later fell into error. (although later Clement of Alexandria absolves him of this heresy)

The heresy seems to have been to water down the moral standards of Christianity so that adultery was acceptable. 


See Irenaeus Against Heresies :   Book 1, ch.26.3    


“ The Nicolaitanes are the followers of that Nicolas who was one of the seven first ordained to the diaconate by the apostles. They lead lives of unrestrained indulgence. The character of these men is very plainly pointed out in the Apocalypse of John,  [when they are represented] as teaching that it is a matter of indifference to practise adultery, and to eat things sacrificed to idols. Wherefore the Word has also spoken of them thus: "But this thou hast, that thou hatest the deeds of the Nicolaitanes, which I also hate ."


William Barclay quotes Sir William Ramsay describing their teaching: “It was an attempt to effect a reasonable compromise with the established usages of the Graeco-Roman society and to retain as many as possible of those usages in the Christian system”

                 i.e. merging world morality into the Christian system!




4.3 Cerinthus


Cerinthus , at the end of the first century and beginning of the second, was the leader of a sect which was an offshoot of the Ebionites


He believed in justification by works, in particular the ceremonial observances of Judaism


See Irenaeus Against Heresies: Book 1 - ch.26.1

(our layout):


“ Cerinthus, again, a man who was educated in the wisdom of the Egyptians,

•  taught that the world was not made by the primary God, but by a certain Power far separated from him, and at a distance from that Principality who is supreme over the universe, and ignorant of him who is above all.
•  He represented Jesus as having not been born of a virgin, but as being the son of Joseph and Mary according to the ordinary course of human generation, while he nevertheless was more righteous, prudent, and wise than other men.
•  Moreover, after his baptism, Christ descended upon him in the form of a dove from the Supreme Ruler, and that then he proclaimed the unknown Father, and performed miracles.
•  But at last Christ departed from Jesus, and that then Jesus suffered and rose again, while Christ remained impassible, inasmuch as he was a spiritual being




•   God didn't make all of creation
•   Jesus was purely human
•   after his baptism the Christ came on his human body and exercised the ministry
•   the Christ left the human Jesus who had to die and rise again


b) Book 3, chapter 3, an amusing anecdote:


“ There are also those who heard from him that John, the disciple of the Lord, going to bathe at Ephesus, and perceiving Cerinthus within, rushed out of the bath-house without bathing, exclaiming, "Let us fly, lest even the bath-house fa ll down, because Cerinthus, the enemy of the truth, is within ."


c) Book 3, chapter 11


“ John, the disciple of the Lord, preaches this faith, and seeks, by the proclamation of the Gospel, to remove that error which by Cerinthus had been disseminated among men, and a long time previously by those termed Nicolaitans ”


See the notes on the Nicolaitans above.


4.4 Docetism  


Docetism (Gk.dokeo, "to seem") is the belief that Jesus' only seemed to have a physical body and to physically die, but in reality he was incorporeal, a pure spirit, and hence could not physically die .


This belief is most commonly linked to the Gnostics (see below) who believed that matter was evil , and therefore denied that God would take on a material body.




4.5 The Gnostics


Gnosticism was most powerful about 150AD


Prior to this, the earliest sect calling themselves Gnostics were the Ophians who worshipped the Serpent (Gk ophis) as the one who brought wisdom and knowledge of good and evil to the human race (see Gen 3) and opposed God, the Creator of a bad world.

(see Irenaeus Against Heresies: Book 1 - ch.30)


They are linked to Simon Magus (of Acts 8:9-) who is said to have become a heretic.



The Teaching of the Gnostics:


i) A divided world existence

There is a hostility between this world and God's kingdom, one evil and one good (dualism), seeing no good in the created world, only in the spirit.

Salvation came from being liberated from this world by discovering the kingdom of God within one's soul

This was only able to be true of ‘the elect' who were alien prisoners in this world. Salvation came by bypassing the hostile powers of this world to ascend to God

This dualism created:


•    asceticism (severe self-discipline, abasement and escape from the world) – because the world was seen as bad, and
•    libertinism – being freed from the confines of the world to do what you like – where, in a queer twist of logic, they said that because the material world was evil and didn't count in salvation, you could do what you like in it and hence immorality and licentiousness were acceptable.


ii) A divided God

Gnosticism rejected any notion of God's disclose of Himself.

It saw two ‘God's

•    the Demiurge, the Aeon, or an Archon (Ruler) – identified with the harsh God of the Old Testament who created the world (which was bad)
•    the unknown supreme God of the New Testament


iii) A divided Jesus

Jesus was first a human being.

The heavenly Archon (ruler) descended on this human and deserted him at his Passion (in some sects this heavenly Christ descends again on the risen body after the resurrection and enables him to teach his disciples for a further eighteen months.)


If the true Christ lived on the earth it was only with a phantom body, a body that seemed to be human – see Docetism above.


iv) A confused salvation

Salvation came through gnosis, knowledge – a mystic knowledge revealed by the God of the New Testament (the good God) to the teacher of the sect.

Humanity was divided into:

•  a spiritual elite able to achieve salvation and,
•  "psychics" capable of a modified form of salvation and,
•  "material" people cut off from salvation.


There were lots of Gnostic writings, most of which have not survived, some being ascribed to Philip, Mary Magdalene, Adam, Peter, and Paul.


One of the best known is the Gospel of Thomas, some 114 purported sayings of Jesus, more of a Gnostic style that of the traditional Gospel style.



4.6 Montanism


This was a pentecostal movement in Phrygia about AD 172 led by Montanus with two prophetesses.

He taught that they were now in the age of the Spirit which he heralded, with a strong emphasis on prophecy. Tertullian of Carthage joined them.




4.7 Arianism


Arius was a senior presbyter in charge of one of the twelve parishes of Alexandria who lived about AD 250-336.

He taught a divine distinction between God the Father and Jesus the Son. He maintained the the Son who pre-existed in heaven was a divine being created by the Father and probably inferior. The Son then created the Spirit who was subservient to the Son.

Arius was a persuasive preacher and convinced many that this was so, that the Father alone was God and the Son did not possess any of the divine attributes of of immortality, sovereignty, perfect wisdom and goodness and purity. Thus this teaching undermined Christ's standing as the revelation of God and the redeemer of the world.

The Logos or Son took the place of the soul in the earthly Jesus.  Arius was excommunicated but the row over his teaching rumbled on.

Constantine called a general assembly of bishops that eventually met at Nicaea.  Out of this came the Creed of Nicaea (AD 325)

This was expanded and revised and authorised by the Council of Constantinople in AD 381 and is now know as the Nicene Creed which is read in churches today



NB. Athanasius (c.296 – 373)

His writings were very significant in that they worked out the basic doctrines and sought to counter the heresy of Arianism:

- Against the Gentiles -- On the Incarnation - a double treatise in 318, affirming and explaining that Jesus was both God and Man. In his major theological opus,

- the Three Discourses Against the Arians, in which Athanasius stressed that the Father's begetting of the Son, or uttering of the Word, was an eternal relationship between them, not an event that took place within time.        




5. Summary


On this Page we have observed:

  •  The existence of many heresies in the first centuries of the Church.
  •  These arose from men reaching their own conclusions about God, Jesus & salvation.
  •  The fact that instead of pulling the Church down, they provoked many leaders to write against them and become clearer in their understanding of the truth.
  •  A list of the main heresies that arose in that period.


Without any doubt, these years were years of tremendous battles for the truth, but out of them came clarity of understanding which has helped the Church throughout the following centuries until now.




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