Church Fathers: Background on Heresies

By Thomas V. Mirus (bio - articles - email) | Jun 01, 2015

We are reaching a point in the history of Christianity at which combatting heresy becomes a principal concern of ecclesiastical writers. We will soon be looking, for instance, at St. Irenaeus, whose status as the most important theologian of the second century is due largely to his massive work Against Heresies. It will be helpful, then, to take a brief look at the chief heresies which threatened to lead second-century Christians away from the true faith.

Heresies have existed practically from the beginning of Christianity; the New Testament gives ample witness to this. St. John mentions “deceivers…who will not acknowledge the coming of Christ in the flesh” (2 Jn. 7), while St. Paul notably clashed with the Judaizers, who insisted that Gentile converts be circumcised and keep the disciplines of the Mosaic law.

The heresies most influential in the second century, however, were various forms of Gnosticism. Though the Gnosticism which concerns us incorporated elements of Christianity, not all Gnosticism was “Christian”; in fact, it predated Christianity.


Gnosticism, as a general term, was a mixture of Oriental religions and Greek philosophy which began to appear in the Hellenistic period after Alexander the Great conquered the Orient (334-324 BC). It is from the Eastern religions that Gnosticism received its characteristic dualism—between God and the world, between the soul and the body, between good and evil as opposed principles—as well as a “longing for redemption and immortality” [Quasten, Patrology Vol. 1, p. 254].

Gnosticism took from Greek philosophy what Quasten calls a “speculative element”:

Thus the speculations concerning mediators between God and the world were incorporated from Neo-Platonism; a naturalistic kind of mysticism from Neo-Pythagoreanism; and the appreciation of the individual and his ethical task from Neo-Stoicism. [p. 255]

In Gnosticism, God is totally transcendent and far removed from the material world, which is considered to be evil. Between God and the world of matter there are a series of lesser, increasingly imperfect gods or aeons. One of these, the Demiurge, created the material world and evil; this Demiurge is identified as the God of the Jews.

The higher aeons have bestowed upon some men a divine spark, but it is imprisoned in matter by the Demiurge. Gnostic redemption, therefore, is deliverance of this spark from matter. The human race is divided into pneumatikoi (influenced by the spirit), who have the divine element and will certainly be saved; psychikoi (psychicists), who can be saved; and hylikoi (influenced by matter), who cannot be saved. The material world will eventually be destroyed along with all those who are not saved. The Christian Gnostics would fit Jesus into this system by saying he was a man who was accidentally united with one of the higher aeons; however, it was the man who suffered and died, not the divine element.

The moral teaching of Gnosticism varied from sect to sect. The body was considered evil, but by the same token, what one did with one’s body did not matter so long as one possessed gnosis. Some sects, such as the Encratite school founded by Tatian the Syrian, despised the body and practiced renunciation far beyond Christian orthodoxy, while most others taught that the pleasures of the flesh could be given free rein.

A figure of pre-Christian Gnosticism is actually mentioned in the Acts of the Apostles (8:9-24): the Samaritan Simon Magus, who offered the Apostles money if they would give him the power to perform works of the Holy Spirit. His teacher, Dositheus, and his student, Menander, were both Samaritan Gnostics. According to Origen, Dositheus tried to convince the Samaritans he was the Messiah. Menander, who also claimed to be a redeemer, was the teacher of Satornil and Basilides, two early Christian Gnostics.

Christian Gnosticism

Christian Gnosticism came to be when some Gnostics, converting to the new religion, did not abandon their Gnosticism but simply added some Christian beliefs to it. These educated men, however, wanted to make Christian beliefs a matter of knowledge rather than faith, so that it would fit better into the world of Hellenistic religious philosophy. Indeed, the Greek gnosis simply means knowledge, but in the context of Gnosticism it refers to insight of a special and secret kind, inaccessible to all but a chosen few and taking the place of revelation.

The Gnostics produced a huge body of literature, particularly in the second century; “the first Christian theological literature and the first Christian poetry were of Gnostic character” [Quasten, p. 256]. In addition to theological treatises, they wrote many apocryphal works including gospels, acts and epistles of the Apostles, and apocalypses. Aside from some works in Coptic, most of the vast array of Gnostic literature has perished, so that it is known to us primarily from quotation by ecclesiastical writers such as St. Irenaeus, Eusebius, and Clement of Alexandria. In 1945, however, a large collection of Gnostic texts known as the Nag Hammadi library was discovered in Upper Egypt.

A significant early figure was Basilides, Menander’s student, who lived during the reign of Hadrian and Antoninus Pius (120-145). A teacher in Alexandria, Basilides wrote a gospel and a commentary on it titled Exegetica, only fragments of which survive. His work was perpetuated by his son Isidore. Some points of Basilides’s doctrine, summarized by Irenaeus, are as follows.

There is a procession of divine beings increasingly removed from the “Unborn Father”: Nous, then Logos, then Phronesis, Sophia, Dynamis, and the even lesser powers which made a series of three hundred and sixty-five heavens, until the angels of the lowest heaven created the visible world. The chief of these angels was the God of the Jews, who tried to set his nation over all others.

The Father sent the Nous (Christ) to deliver believers from the powers which ruled the world. Jesus wrought miracles in the form of a man, but did not suffer and die on the cross; rather, he transfigured Simon of Cyrene to look like him, and stood by laughing at those who thought it was Jesus who was being crucified. Therefore Basilides teaches not to confess Jesus crucified, but him who was sent by the Father and “thought to be crucified.”

It is knowledge of all this that saves men from the powers who made the world. But only the soul is redeemed, not the body, so that none of our actions matter.

Valentinus, a contemporary of Basilides and Isidore, had a far greater influence than they did. Born in Egypt and educated in Alexandria before going to Rome, he founded two schools: one in the East and another in Italy. Irenaeus says of Valentinus and his followers that they cloaked their doctrines in the language and phraseology of orthodox writers in order the more easily to dupe the simple.

Of the Italian school of Valentinus the three most important figures were Ptolemy, who wrote a treatise on the Mosaic law called A Letter to Flora; Heracleon, whose commentary on the Gospel of St. John is quoted extensively in Origen’s commentary; and Florinus, a Roman priest. Eusebius quotes a letter written by Irenaeus to Florinus On the Sole Sovereignty, or That God is not the Author of Evil. Irenaeus tells Florinus that his teachings do not come from the apostles or their successors, and reminds him of St. Polycarp, whom Florinus apparently knew as a young man. Irenaeus also wrote a book On the Ogdoad (a term with origins in Egyptian religion, which took on a number of different meanings related to the heavenly spheres or the aeons in Gnosticism) against Florinus, and a letter to Pope Victor asking him to take steps against his writings.

Of the Valentinian school in the East, Bardesanes (154-222) was one of the most important. Born of a noble family in Edessa, he converted to Christianity at the age of twenty-five. Eusebius reports that he was “skilled in Syriac,” that he had been a Valentinian but later condemned and refuted the sect, and yet, “He did not completely clean off the filth of his ancient heresy.”

According to Eusebius, Bardesanes wrote dialogues against the Marcionites and others, many of which were translated into Greek, including one addressed to Antoninus Concerning Fate. This work survives in the original Syriac, but it was actually written by Bardesanes’s disciple Philip, Bardesanes being the main speaker in the dialogue.

St. Ephrem the Syrian, in the late fourth century, attributed to Bardesanes the creation of Syrian hymnody. He apparently composed one hundred and fifty hymns to spread his teachings, with such great success that Ephrem had to compose his own to counter their influence. Bardesanes’s son Harmonius continued his work, including writing poems of his own.

Another Gnostic sect was founded by a contemporary of Valentinus, the Alexandrian Carpocrates. He taught that the world was created by angels and that Jesus was just a man whose soul was so pure that the Father gave him the means to escape from the world. The Carpocratians believed that they could accomplish the same, and even surpass Jesus’s disciples in this regard. They set up images of Jesus alongside images of philosophers such as Pythagoras, Plato and Aristotle, and honored them all in the same manner. According to Irenaeus, the Carpocratians practiced magic and incantations, used love potions and had “recourse to familiar spirits, dreams sending demons and other abominations.”

The son of Carpocrates, Justin, composed a treatise On Justice at a young age before dying at seventeen, after which he was worshipped as a god on the island of Cephalonia, of which his mother Alexandria was a native. According to passages of On Justice quoted by Clement of Alexandria, Justin taught that all goods should be held in common, including women.


Nicknamed the “wolf of Pontus” by Tertullian, Marcion was the son of the bishop of Sinope, an important port city in that region. About 140 he came to Rome, but his controversial teachings led the Church authorities to demand him to give an account of his faith, which he did in a letter that is now lost. In 144 he was excommunicated. (In fact, he had already been excommunicated by his father before he came to Rome.)

Unlike other Gnostics, who only founded schools, Marcion, after being excommunicated, actually founded his own church, with its own hierarchy of bishops, priests and deacons, and with liturgies similar to those of the Roman Church. In this way he gained more followers than any other Gnostic teacher, so that ten years after his excommunication, St. Justin wrote that he “caused many of every nation to speak blasphemies.” Some Marcionite communities existed up to the beginning of the Middle Ages, especially in Syria.

Marcion only wrote one work, Antithesis, which is lost; much of what we know of his teachings comes from Irenaeus. He seems to have been associated with a Syrian Gnostic named Cerdon, who came to Rome and taught that the God of the Old Testament is not the same as the Father of Jesus Christ. According to Irenaeus, Marcion taught the same, saying that Jesus came “to do away with the Prophets and the Law and all the works of that God who made the world.” Marcion “mutilated” the Gospels and the Epistles of Paul, removing parts that contradicted his doctrine. The Old Testament he rejected altogether.

Irenaeus also recounts a meeting between St. Polycarp and Marcion. Marcion asked the bishop of Smyrna, “Do you recognize me?” Polycarp answered, “I recognize you as the first-born of Satan.”

In addition to typically Gnostic ideas, Marcion taught a kind of Docetism, the idea that Jesus’s humanity and suffering were illusory. According to Marcion, Jesus was not born of the Virgin Mary; indeed, he was not born at all, but simply appeared suddenly in the synagogue of Capernaum. He retained the appearance of humanity until his death on the cross, by which he redeemed souls from the dominion of the Demiurge. Yet since, according to Marcion’s own teaching, this death was an illusion, it is quite illogical for him to place such redemptive value on it.

The most important follower of Marcion was Apelles. We know some things about him from the writings of Rhodon, his literary opponent, who knew him personally and reported on a debate they had. According to Rhodon (who, incidentally, was a disciple of Tatian), there were many disagreements among Marcion’s followers, particularly on the question of how many divine Principles there were. In opposition to Marcion’s dualism, Apelles said that there was only one Principle, so that the Demiurge was not a god, but an angel created by the first Principle.

Also unlike Marcion, Apelles held that Jesus’s body was real, not illusory—this body was not born of Mary, however, but formed from the four elements of the stars, and returned to them after his ascension. Even more than Marcion, Apelles condemned the Old Testament as not only worthless but contradictory and deceitful. To demonstrate this, he wrote a work called The Syllogisms, many passages of which are quoted by St. Ambrose. His other work, Manifestations, relating the visions of the prophetess Philoumena, is not extant.


Other than Gnosticism, the most influential heresy of the late second century was that of the Montanists. This schismatic sect flourished in second-century Phrygia and third-century Carthage. Its founder, the Phrygian Montanus, was baptized sometime around 156 and shortly thereafter began to prophesy in a mad and ecstatic manner. He claimed to be the mouthpiece of the Holy Spirit, in fulfillment of the promise of Christ to send a Paraclete, and that his revelations would supersede those of Christ. Two other important leaders of the sect were the prophetesses Maximilla and Priscilla.

The Montanists wanted to remain as a superior group within the Church, and at first not much was done about them. At least at the beginning, they did not seem to be teaching any false doctrines, though their disciplines were met with disapproval and their manner of prophesying was considered contrary to Catholic tradition. (Recall that the Greek apologist Miltiades wrote a treatise against the Montanists, titled That a Prophet Should not Speak in Ecstasy.) Gradually, though, more and more bishops in Asia were troubled by them; sometime in the late second century they were excommunicated, and around the beginning of the third century they set up their own communities.

The Montanists taught that the Second Coming and the thousand-year reign of Christ on earth were imminent. They practiced austere disciplines, forbidding second marriages (early on they even forbade first marriages). They taught only one forgiveness of sins at baptism; any sins after baptism could not be forgiven. Eventually they split up into different sects, the most important of which was led by Tertullian, the greatest of the African Church Fathers, who fell into this heresy in his middle age. The last of the Tertullianists were reconciled to the Church by St. Augustine in the fourth century.

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Thomas V. Mirus is an administrative assistant and writer at A jazz pianist with a music degree, he often takes the lead in our commentary on the arts. See full bio.

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