Carl J. Sommer

In the second century, a man named Marcion taught that the God of the Old Testament was different from the God of Jesus. Marcion equated the creator God of the Old Testament with Satan. He so disdained the God of Judaism that he developed a canon of Scripture that included only the Gospel of Luke, the Acts of the Apostles, and some of the Pauline Epistles. In response to Marcion’s heresies, the bishops of Asia Minor excommunicated him (St. Polycarp of Smyrna called him "the firstborn of Satan").

Marcion then traveled to Rome, where he made an immense gift to the Church that at first blinded the community to his true beliefs. When Marcion published a book called The Antitheses, his radical beliefs became apparent to all, and the Church returned his donation and excommunicated him.

The early Church’s response to Marcion illustrates an important point: Heresy is serious business, and it should be dealt with decisively.

Heresy has been around nearly as long as the Church. It is "the obstinate denial or doubt after the reception of baptism of some truth which is to be believed by divine and Catholic faith" (Code of Canon Law, canon 751). Heresy does great spiritual and societal damage, and it must be refuted. Indeed, the Church must respond to heresy in order to protect the faithful and guard the faith.

The writings of the early Church Fathers reflect this concern for refuting heresy. In Against Heresies, for example, St. Irenaeus described the evil caused by "certain men [who] have set the truth aside": They "falsify the oracles of God, and prove themselves evil interpreters of the good word of revelation. They also overthrow the faith of many, by drawing them away, under a pretence of [superior] knowledge, from Him who rounded and adorned the universe" (I, Preface). St. Augustine wrote that one who draws people away from the Church is "a son of the devil and a murderer" (Answer to Petilian the Donatist, II, 13).

Leaders in the early Church generally had a two-fold response to heresy: First, refute the heresy and affirm the true teaching of the Church, so that others will not be led astray. Second, work to persuade the heretic (or heretics) to repent and return to the fold. The early Church’s dealings with heresy reveal both successes and shortcomings, and revisiting this period of history is instructive for our own times.

Nothing New Under the Sun

Already in the New Testament, heretical divisions were emerging in the Church. The Apostle John observed that "many deceivers have gone out into the world, men who will not acknowledge the coming of Jesus Christ in the flesh" (2 Jn. 7). These heretics were called "Nicolaitans" (See Rev. 2:6, 15). They denied the Incarnation because they denied the goodness of the physical world.

St. Paul combated two distinct types of heretics. He encountered those who, like the Nicolaitans, despised the material world and advocated an exaggerated asceticism. Paul called these men "liars whose consciences are seared, who forbid marriage and enjoin abstinence from food" (1 Tim. 4:3). Paul also struggled with those who taught Gentile converts that they had to be circumcised: "There are many insubordinate men, empty talkers and deceivers, especially the circumcision party" (Tit. 1:10).

The Apostles dealt with these early heretics firmly. Paul wrote of them, "They must be silenced, since they are teaching for base gain what they have no right to teach. . . . Rebuke them sharply, that they may be sound in the faith" (Tit. 1:11-13). St. John wrote to his communities that if anyone came to them preaching false doctrines, "Do not receive him into the house or give him any greeting; for he who greets him shares in his wicked work" (2 Jn. 10-11).

Escaping the Flesh

Despite these decisive dealings, heresies multiplied in the early Church. Gnosticism, a pernicious heresy that held that matter was evil and only spirit was good, was particularly attractive in the Greco-Roman world. Carried to its logical conclusion, Gnostic belief had three devastating effects:

■ Gnostics almost always doubted the full humanity of Jesus.

■ Gnostics tended to alternate between a dangerously exaggerated asceticism and hedonism.

■ For Gnostics, salvation was impossible for ordinary people, since only those who possessed arcane spiritual knowledge could escape the prison of matter.

Gnosticism plagued the Church for over a century. Irenaeus of Lyons, Hippolytus of Rome, and Tertullian of Carthage all combated the movement by using three tactics:

■ Using logic to demonstrate the absurdity of much of Gnosticism. Tertullian was especially adept at this form of argumentation.

■ Showing that true apostolic teaching had been handed down to an orderly succession of bishops. The concept of apostolic succession was first used by Irenaeus to defend the true faith against Gnosticism.

■ Highlighting the immorality of many of the Gnostic leaders. Irenaeus wrote about one Marcus, who allowed women to concelebrate heretical liturgies in order to seduce them (see Irenaeus of Lyons, Against Heresies 1.8.3-4).

Irenaeus also tells us of one Cerdo, who taught heresy in Rome in the second century. He was rebuked by the Church twice, reinstated twice, and then, when he was caught teaching heresy a third time, excommunicated.

The early Church preferred to persuade heretics to repent of their own free will. Many did. In the middle of the third century, synods were convened to decide the process for reconciling heretics with the Church; in particular, they addressed the question of whether or not heretics should be re-baptized upon readmission into the Church. The decision of the Church was that those who were originally baptized according to the Trinitarian formula should not be re-baptized.

Christ: Not Eternal?

By the beginning of the fourth century, Gnosticism was largely a spent force. The triumph of Christianity was almost complete. With the accession of Constantine to the throne, the future of Christianity must have seemed rosy. But at that very moment, the most persuasive heretic in the history of Christianity was arising.

Arius was a priest of the church of Alexandria in Egypt. He disputed the proposition that Christ was coeternal with the Father. He coined the heretical phrase, "There was a time when the Son was not." Thus, in his understanding, Jesus was not fully divine. The Bishop of Alexandria convened a local synod, which condemned Arius’s theology in 320. Arius persisted in his teaching, and in325 the Council of Nicaea was convened. The Council of Nicaea affirmed Alexandria’s condemnation and promulgated the Nicene Creed. The passage that proclaims Jesus "God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God" was deliberately placed to affirm that Christ is coeternal with the Father and to reject Arianism.

Arius continued to spread his teachings. They were so persuasive that most of Emperor Constantine’s immediate successors favored Arianism. Athanasius of Alexandria, Hilary of Poitiers, and other staunch defenders of Catholic orthodoxy were banished from their dioceses by imperial decree. Athanasius himself was banished or forced to flee from Alexandria five times for his defense ofChristianity.

Throughout this period, the strategy of the bishops remained clear. Outgunned in the political realm, they attempted to achieve Christian unity through a conciliar decision that would force the Arians to either renounce their position or reveal themselves to be heretics. Four different ecumenical councils defined the Church's teachings on Jesus, the Trinity, the Holy Spirit, and Mary with increasing precision.

Heresies related to Christ’s nature multiplied in the fourth and fifth centuries, just as Gnostic heresies multiplied in the third century. Some of the heretical groups, such as the monophysites in what is now Iraq, never rejoined the Catholic community, but slowly, Athanasius and other champions were able to restore most of the Arians to full communion.

Church and State

The early Church’s approach to dealing with heresy involved patience, persuasion, and an appeal to tradition and authority. This approach was ultimately effective, though it involved the Church in years of bitter debate.

Starting with Constantine, the emperors consistently took an interest in Church affairs. Until the 380s, they were more likely to intervene on behalf of Arianism than orthodoxy. Late in the fourth century, this situation changed.

It would be inaccurate to say that church and state were wed in the late Roman Empire. There were many conflicts between church and state throughout this period. At the same time, rulers now generally believed that the defense of Catholic orthodoxy was the best way to achieve peace in their kingdoms. This was a mixed blessing, for state intervention in Church affairs sometimes led to tragedy. Two incidents-the execution of Priscillian in 385 and the return of the Donatists to Catholicism-illustrate this point.

Prisicillian was a well-educated man of noble birth who taught Gnostic doctrines and attracted many followers. His teachings were condemned at the Council of Saragossa in 380, but he continued to teach. He converted two bishops to his heresy, and these bishops consecrated him Bishop of Avila. A group of orthodox bishops appealed to the Emperor Gratian, who responded by banishing Priscillian. Shortly thereafter, Gratian was murdered, and Maximus claimed the throne. Priscillian returned to Avila, and the orthodox bishops appealed to Maximus. Maximus responded by ordering Priscillian beheaded after a short trial. Pope Siricus, Martin of Tours, and Ambrose of Milan all vigorously protested the verdict. Still, the execution was carried out.

Modern scholars have proclaimed this the first incident in which a heretic was condemned to death, but this is a misleading conclusion. No ecclesiastical authority sought Priscillian’s death, and many fought against his execution. The deed was a crime and a tragedy, but the Church was innocent of the man’s death.

The case of the Donatists also illustrates the complications that arise whenever church and state become too closely identified. Donatism began early in the fourth century, when a bishop who had renounced Christianity under persecution consecrated a new bishop of Carthage. A man named Donatus claimed that the consecration was invalid. Pope Miltiades appointed a commission to hear the case in 313,and the commission decided against Donatus. Despite this decision, Donatus continued to preach, and his followers accepted him as their bishop.

The chief point of contention between the Donatists and the Church had to do with how much penance a person had to do after committing the sin of apostasy. The Donatists held that apostates could be restored to grace after a lengthy period of penance, but that they would forever be banned from holding ecclesiastical office. The Donatists held that the sacraments conferred by a bishop who had once committed apostasy were invalid. Hence, all the priestly ordinations of the original apostate Bishop of Carthage were invalid, and all his successors as Bishop of Carthage were not true bishops.

When Augustine became Bishop of Hippo, the Donatist schism had become a crisis that threatened not just the Church but the peace and security of the state. In 397, Gildo, a wealthy landowner in North Africa, revolted against Roman rule. Gildo had used his great wealth to raise an army, and his intention was to make the regions around Carthage an independent country, under his rule. Gildo had many supporters, quite a few of whom were Donatists. One of his main supporters was Optatus, the Donatist Bishop of Thamugadi.

Gildo was defeated by the Roman army and executed in 398. Optatus was not punished in any way. It was clear, however, that Donatism was dangerous to imperial power. Augustine and the other Catholic bishops, who desired to bring the Donatists back into the Catholic fold, convinced the imperial authorities to treat the Donatists mildly. Augustine used arguments from Scripture, tradition, and logic to convince the Donatists to return of their own free will. The Donatists, however, remained recalcitrant.

Finally, in May of 411, a grand conference was convened, composed of 248 Donatists and 248 Catholics. The meeting, presided over by the imperial tribune Marcellinus, lasted until January of 412. After hearing all the arguments, Marcellinus decided against the Donatists. He ordered all Donatist church property to be confiscated, and he imposed heavy fines against those who refused to join the Catholic Church. The death penalty was never employed against the Donatists.

Augustine’s role in the Donatist controversy has been debated for years. One modern historian has called Augustine "the father of theinquisition."1 Yet the Inquisition began 800 years after Augustine’s death, and Augustine never sought the death of the Donatists. After the revolt of Gildo, Roman authorities were going to act against the Donatists anyway, probably much more harshly than under Augustine's guidance.

Coercion and Freedom

The resort to compulsion in the matter of religion set a precedent that had disastrous results in the Middle Ages. While the state-and not the Church-was often the culprit in such compulsion, it is the Church that has borne the criticism for such acts throughout the centuries. The crushing of the Albigensian heresy in the thirteenth century and the Spanish Inquisition of the fifteenth to eighteenth centuries seriously damaged the evangelical witness of the Church. Today's gross misunderstandings of these events have provided much fodder for critics of the Church.

History teaches us that the very act of compulsion sometimes causes worse evils than the heretical teachings themselves. The religious wars of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries caused many to conclude that religious tolerance was necessary if Europe was not to destroy itself. The Church has long agreed with this conclusion. As the Second Vatican Council’s Declaration on Religious Freedom (Dignitatis Humanae) states, "Truth can impose itself on the mind of man only in virtue of its own truth, which wins over the mind with both gentleness and power" (no. 1). This powerful statement encapsulates the two-thousand-year history of the Church on the question of how to deal with heretics.

Using the definition of heresy provided by canon 751 (see the beginning of this article), it is easy to see that heresy is still a problem in the Church today. It is clear that the bishops and theologians of the early Church would not have tolerated the claims of those who call themselves Catholic, yet accept abortion or homosexual "marriage," or doubt the truth of Scripture or the indefectibility of the Church and her sacraments. The path the early Church would have taken in dealing with such doubters is clear: The first step would have been fraternal correction, then denial of the Eucharist (as St. Ambrose of Milan dealt with the Emperor Theodosius after he ordered the slaughter of 6,000 innocent people), and finally, these lesser sanctions failing, excommunication. Have we reached the point where such sterner measures are warranted?

[1] W. H. C. Frend, The Rise of Christianity (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1984), p. 672.

Carl Sommer has an M.A. in historical theology from the Aquinas Institute of Theology. His best-known work is We Look for A Kingdom: The Everyday Lives of the Early Christians (Ignatius). He lives with his wife and two children in St. Louis, Missouri.

From the Mar/Apr 2010 Issue of Lay Witness Magazine. To access it online or to see more articles like this one, go to: