Early Heretics

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    This article is one in a series on the history of the Church - you are currently on the topic that is in bold:

    Paul prophecied of heretics and liars arising from both inside and outside the churches:

    For I know this, that after my departing shall grievous wolves enter in among you, not sparing the flock. Also of your own selves shall men arise, speaking perverse things, to draw away disciples after them. (Acts 20:29-30)
    Now the Spirit speaketh expressly, that in the latter times some shall depart from the faith, giving heed to seducing spirits, and doctrines of devils; Speaking lies in hypocrisy; having their conscience seared with a hot iron; Forbidding to marry, [and commanding] to abstain from meats, (I Tim. 4:1-3a)

    Irenaeus records the approach of the Apostle John and Polycarp when confronted by certain heretics:

    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 fall down, because Cerinthus, the enemy of the truth, is within. (Vol. I Ante-Nicene Fathers 416)
    Polycarp himself replied to Marcion, who met him on one occasion, and said, "Dost thou know me?" "I do know thee, the first-born of Satan." Such was the horror which the apostles and their disciples had against holding even verbal communication with any corrupters of the truth; as Paul also says, "A man that is an heretic, after the first and second admonition, reject; (Vol. I Ante-Nicene Fathers 416)

    A breif description of some of the popular early heretics is included below:

    Heresy Description
    Gnosticism A term created by modern scholars to describe religious movements that believe gnosis, the knowledge of God enabled by secret teachings, is necessary for salvation. The gnostics understood themselves to be the elite “chosen people” who, in distinction from the “worldly-minded,” were able to perceive the delicate connection between world (cosmology), humanity (anthropology), and salvation (soteriology). The goal of gnostic teaching was that with the help of insight (gnōsis), the elect could be freed from the fetters of this world (spirit from matter, light from darkness) and so return to their true home in the Kingdom of Light—for that alone is the meaning of “salvation.” It is not a matter of deliverance from sin and guilt, as in orthodoxy, but of the freeing of the spirit from matter (hyle), in particular, the material human body. [1]

    Prominent Gnostics include Cerinthus and Valentinus (born c. 100 AD)

    Marcionism Marcion'(C. 110 - 160 AD) attempted to purchase the right to be the bishop in Rome, but was rejected, so he started his own church around 144 AD. Marcion sought to reform Christianity by merging it with Hellenistic philosophy (not to be confused with mythology, which he despised). He taught that:
    • The Hebrew scriptures were irrelevant,
    • Jehovah was a lesser demiurge who created the earth, but was (de facto) the source of evil.
    • Separated Jesus from Christ,
    • Only Paul's teachings (and a modified version of Luke) were inspired by the 'true' God.
    Montanism Montanus believed he was the incarnation of the 'paraclete' mentioned in the Gospel of John 14:16. Accompanied by two women, Prisca and Maximilla, who likewise claimed to be the embodiments of the Holy Spirit, "the Three" spoke in ecstatic visions and urged their followers to fast and pray, so that they might share these personal revelations. The prophets of Montanism did not speak as messengers of God (i.e. "Thus saith the Lord") but rather spoke in his person. "I am the Father, the Word, and the Paraclete," said Montanus (Didymus, De Trinitate, III, xli). Montanus was condemned by Irenaeus and other early church fathers for heresy and being false prophets.
    Manicheism Mani (ca. 215–277), a self-styled “Apostle of Jesus Christ,” who resided for a good part of his life in Persia, on March 20, 242 AD, announced himself as a new prophet. Although Manicheism may have started as a Christian heresy, it developed into a new missionary religion, drawing in part on Zoroastrianism and Buddhism, which for a time rivaled Christianity. Its main feature was its thoroughgoing dualism, in which Light and Darkness were two equal and opposite principles. It was totally world-renouncing. Augustine was a Manichean for nine years (373–382) before his conversion to Christianity.[2]
    Sabellianism SABELLIUS is by far the most original, profound, and ingenious of the ante-Nicene Unitarians, and his system the most plausible rival of orthodox trinitarianism.

    Philip Schaff and David Schley Schaff, History of the Christian Church, vol. 2 (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1910), 581.


    1. Kurt Rudolph, “Gnosticism,” ed. David Noel Freedman, The Anchor Yale Bible Dictionary (New York: Doubleday, 1992), 1033–1034.
    2. F. F. Bruce, “Literature, Early Christian,” ed. David Noel Freedman, The Anchor Yale Bible Dictionary (New York: Doubleday, 1992), 343–344.