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Later heresies.

As mentioned before (Feb. 2006, p. 20), Basil drew a triple distinction between heresies, schisms, and illicit assemblies of rebellious clerics and laymen. This was an evident attempt to cool the theological temperatures. There are some indications of success. For instance, the normally fiery Epiphanius (The Anchored Man 68) specifies that the Meletians, an Egyptian re-run of the African Novatians with their stern attitude towards re-admission of lapsed brethren to the Church, "are a schism, not a heresy."

However, this same Epiphanius deemed it necessary to compile an account of 80 heresies (a tally possibly inspired by the "fourscore concubines" of Song of Songs 6) under the provocative title Medicine-Chest ("Panarion") drawn from the image of furnishing antidotes to the bite of the serpent of heresy, from Simon Magus to the Messalians ("Praying People"), a contemporary Eastern sect condemned by the Council of Ephesus (431) for teaching that as a result of Adam's sin all human souls are. possessed by devils, redeemable not by baptism but ceaseless prayer that eliminates all emotions and leads to visions of the Trinity. This "by far the most extensive ancient account of heresies" (Quasten) is rounded off by an appendix "On the Faith," a ringing endorsement of the Catholic belief.

The ecclesiastical historian and last great Antiochene theologian, Theodoret of Cyrus (c.393-c.466) did much the same in his compendium of heresies, from Simon Magus again to the Nestorians of his own day. John of Damascus in his turn dealt with them in the same extensive way during the Iconoclast period. From the ninth century on, Byzantine manuscript illuminations regularly depict heretics grovelling before Church Councils or the Orthodox Fathers.

In the West

Western Christendom manifested the same growing intensity. The religiously neutral Ammianus Marcellinus (History 27.5.4) observed, "No animals are so savage to mankind as are Christians to each other." His hero, the pagan emperor Julian, sought to divide the Church by recalling all exiled heretics.

Jerome (Dialogue against the Pelagians, pref. 2) pro-claimed "I have never spared the heretics and have striven with all zeal that the enemies of the Church might become my enemies too." In what David Wiesen (St. Jerome as Satirist, Ithaca 1964, p.167 n.2) calls "a horrifying remark," Jerome (Against John 8) went so far as to say:

"If I heard that my father, my mother, my brother were saying anything against my Christ, I would stop their blaspheming mouths as though they were mad dogs and mine would be the first hand raised against them."

The major and persistent Arian heresy coincided with the advent of Constantine (306-337), the first emperor to protect and promote Christianity, though both Hadrian (117-138) and Alexander Severus (222-235) had intended to erect temples to Christ, the latter (who included a bust of Jesus in his private pantheon) being deterred by pagan advisers who said if he did, all the world would, become Christian. Though only baptised (by Eusebius) on his deathbed, for which he is mocked by Julian, Constantine took a "hands-on" approach to theology. His Speech to the Gathering of the Saints popularised the notion that Virgil's Fourth Eclogue actually prophesied the Messiah, encouraging the view of this poet as "a naturally Christian soul" ("anima naturaliter Christiana") and a story that St Paul paid a respectful visit to his tomb. The emperor also chaired the Council of Nicaea (June 325), being praised for his courtly patience and tact, in his own words "wishing nothing else than to produce concord among all," an optimistic hope.


The Libyan-born Arius (c.256-336) was trained in theology at the Antioch School, after which he moved to Alexandria where he was ordained deacon, then priest, and given the city's important Church of St Baucalis where he enjoyed a glittering career, thanks to his fame as orator and ascetic. Around 318, he began to infiltrate his radical new personal beliefs into his sermons. Refusing to desist, he and his followers were dismissed and excommunicated by their bishop, Alexander.

Their continued proselytising involved the entire Greek Church in his ideas, the growing tumult resulting in Nicaea. Constantine exiled Arius, but recalled him after three years (328) and attempted to restore him to the clergy. This move, promoted by Eusebius, was thwarted by Athanasius who refused him communion. Moving to Constantinople, Arius dropped dead the very day before the formal reconciliation was scheduled. Thanks to three gross verses of his own about breaking wind in a lavatory, plus cognate tales about Judas Iscariot, there was a version that Arius self-combusted when his bowels burst on the privy.


Apart from what remains of the Arian historian Philostorgius, our knowledge of Arius and his teachings comes largely from his enemies, principally Athanasius and the later church historians. Three formal letters from him to Alexander, Constantine, and Eusebius survive.

Perhaps as a tactic, perhaps from some self-acknowledged shortcoming as a writer of formal theology, Arius ventilated his opinions in popular songs, a nice foreshadowing of the punk and protest ditties of modern times. In the words of the sympathetic Philostorgius (Church History 2.2), Arius wrote songs for the sea, the mill, and the road, then set them to suitable music. These went under the name of Thalia (Banquet). It is evident from his rival's response of an Antithalia that the technique was an effective one.

We owe the two surviving fragments to Athanasius. The first (Against Arius 5) is identified by him as the actual opening. The initial letters of each verse constitute a belligerent acrostic that is unlikely to be accidental; the Byzantine hymnist Romanos the Melode (6th century) also employed acrostic devices. The second and longer extract is presented by Athanasius under the subtitle "The Blasphemies of Arius" (On the Synod 15). In brief, Arius argued that the Son of God was not eternal, but had been created out of nothing by the Father as an instrument for the Creation, hence was not God by nature but a changeable being who owed his status as Son to the righteousness in Him as foreseen by God.

Thanks to the Greek language, the differences between Arianism and Orthdoxy boil down to almost identical terms. This allowed Edward Gibbon (himself briefly a Roman Catholic) to let rip: "The profane of every age have derided the furious contests which the difference of a single diphthong exacted between the Homoousians and the Homoiousians." But this, by Gibbonian design, misses the point. Quasten (Patrology, vol. 3, Catholic University of America 1960, p. 8) puts it unimprovably:

"This doctrine is a typical product of theological rationalism. It satisfied superficial minds to a high degree because it gave a simple and easy answer to the very difficult question of the relation existing between God the Father and God the Son. It saved Arius and his followers the trouble of investigating God's inner life because it denied all internal divine relations. This rationalistic character was what attracted many to the heresy Finally, it must be remembered that the theology of Arius was not entirely new. It was nothing but the theory of subordinationism, that had been taught in a more moderate form before him. The doctrine attacked in fact the very nature of Christianity, because it attributed redemption to a God who was not a true God at all and for this reason incapable of redeeming mankind. Thus it deprived the faith of its essential character."

The end of Arius was not the end of Arianism, which enjoyed a brief honeymoon in the reign of the sympathetic emperor Constantius (350-361), before both destroying itself in the manner of modern Trotskyism by endless internal bickerings of minute points of terminology and being destroyed by the superior oratory and writings of Basil and the two Gregorys, culminating in the decisive Council of Constantinople (381).

An important by-product of Arianism in exile was its influence over the Germanic tribes, which colours the secular and religious history of the later Roman empire. Cf. R.Williams, Arius: Heresy and Tradition (London 1977); R.P..C. Hanson, The Search for the Christian Doctrine of God: the Arian Controversy 318-381 (Edinburgh 1988). For an annotated commentary on parts of Arius' poem, see my Anthology of Byzantine Poetry (Amsterdam 1985), pp. 9-16.


A century later, Arianism, exacerbated by Nestorianism, mutated into Monophysitism, the doctrine that the Incarnate Christ had but a single nature, the divine, as opposed to the orthodox teaching of a divine-human duality. Provoked into formal being by its condemnation at the Council of Chalcedon (451), Monophysitism caused virulent dissensions over the next two centuries, gaining occasional secular champions such as Theodora, the powerful empress of Justinian (527-565) who spent much time and effort attempting to resolve the issue.

Ultimately, the sect weakened itself, again like modern political groupuscules, by splitting into warring factions of various degrees of extremism, before it became both consolidated and confined within the Armenian, Coptic, and Syrian Jacobite Churches. Cf. A.A. Luce, Monophysitism Past and Present (London 1920); W.H.C. Frend, The Rise of the Monophysite Movement (Cambridge 1972).


Monophysitism had roots in two earlier movements, Apollinarianism and Nestorianism. The former is described both by Quasten and the Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church as "the first great Christological heresy." It was sadly ironic that this should be the outcome of the life and writings of Apollinaris of Laodicea (c.310-c.390). With his father, also a scholarly priest, Apollinaris reacted to Julian's foolish (even his admirer Ammianus condemned it) ban on Christians teaching pagan literature by re-casting much of the Bible into classical forms. Exiled in 342 by an Arian bishop, he was a doughty fighter against that sect along with his close friends Athanasius and Basil. Around 361, he was appointed Bishop of the Nicene Laodiceans, remaining thus until his death, famous as teacher and writer, numbering among his pupils Jerome who (On Illustrious Men 104) mentions his "innumerable volumes on the holy scriptures."

Unfortunately, he ended up as a condemned heretic, his teachings banned in 381 and himself denounced in the Antirrheticus of Gregory of Nyssa. After its condemnations by the Councils of Ephesus and Chalcedon, Apollinarianism retreated into the welcoming bosom of the Monophysite Churches. Much of his own prolific work is lost, though a fair amount is rescuable from quotations in others, friends and foes.

Thanks to the device of publishing them under Orthodox big names to conceal authorship, his Christological books survived. Apollinaris' particularism was that Godhead and Manhood were fully integrated in Christ, that Christ's nature was wholly divine, and that his life sustained no moral development, being always perfect. The further irony is that his heresy originated from the crusade against Arianism. As Quasten puts it: "His own theory was no solution at all. His basic mistake was the mutilation of Christ's humanity." The ODCC concurs:

"The fundamental objection from the point of view of Catholic orthodoxy is that if there is no complete man hood in Christ, he is not a perfect example for us, nor did He redeem the whole of human nature, but only its spiritual elements."

Cf. E. Raven, Apollinarianism: an Essay on the Christology of the Early Church (Cambridge 1923).


Nestorianism is a further example of one heresy arising from the combatting of another. Born c.382 of Persian parents, Nestorius trained in theology at Antioch, after which he sojourned in a monastery before becoming a priest, acquiring a fine reputation for his preaching, though Socrates (Church History 7.32) gibed that he was more show than substance, with no genuine understanding of the ancients. On the other hand, Gennadius (On Illustrious Men 53), who also credits him with "composing a great many treatises on diverse questions," says it was his oratorical fame that induced Theodosius II (408-450, an emperor noted for his own piety and theological studies) to parachute him into the See of Constantinople (428), where he at once launched a many-pronged attack against heretics of all stripes, also schismatics and Jews.

However, Nestorius was soon in trouble for his own vociferous Christology. Against the Apollinarians and Monphysites he declared that there were two separate natures in Christ, emphasising the human element, replacing the Orthodox concepts of Henosis and Hypostasis that denoted their unity with those of Synapheia (Conjunction) and Prosopic (Physical). Opponents charged him with believing in two distinct Christs, which seems not to be fair, but his emphasis on ethics and man's capacity to free himself unaided from sin smacks of Pelagianism.

What really landed Nestorius in hot water was his denial to Mary of the title "Theotokos" (Mother of God) on which she now had a firm purchase, thanks to the teachings of earlier Fathers--he proposed "Christotokos" (Mother of Christ). The outcome was that Nestorianism was condemned at the Ephesus Council, its author sent by Theodosius into monastic exile where he died sometime after 450. The emperor further ordered the destruction of his writings. The only complete work to survive is the exotically titled Bazaar of Heraclides, discovered (1895--tr. G.R. Driver & L. Hodgson, Oxford 1925) in a Syriac version, an eloquent apology for his life and beliefs. A few of his sermons and letters are also extant.

The later Nestorians formed a separate Church which would have a long strong influence in Persia, Syria, and Iraq. To give one example, the Assyrians who fled Turkey after the Great War to Iraq, then to America from post-mandate Iraq, were self-proclaimed Nestorians. Cf. F. Loofs, Nestorius and his Place in the History of Christian Doctrine (New York 1914).

A regrettable development during this period was what we might dub retro-heresy, condemnation of a Father previously revered as orthodox. Origen is the classic case. He was hardly in his grave before the attacks on him for (e.g.) alleged Subordinationism and belief in the pre-existence of souls began. His fiercest critics were Epiphanius and Theophilus of Alexandria, his staunchest champions John of Jerusalem and Rufinus of Aquileia who along with Jerome had translated such works as On First Principles. When Jerome foreswore Origenism, it led to a violent rupture with Rufinus, despite the attempted conciliations by Augustine and Paulinus of Nola. Matters came to a head when the Byzantine emperor Justinian and Pope Vigilius anathematised and condemned Origen and his works, the final seal of disapproval coming from the Council of Constantinople in 553. Given his enormous contribution to theology, plus his legitimate speculations on issues undefined by Apostolic tradition and the absence in his very different times of conciliar decrees, Origen did not deserve this stigma. Cf. E. Clark, The Origenist Controversy: The Cultural Construction of an Early Christian Debate (Princeton 1992), also M. Edwards, Origen against Plato (Aldershot 2002).


Iconoclasm was the last major ancient heresy, the first bloody one, this guilt attaching far more to the heretics when in power than the orthodox. It is again worth emphasing that, while there were unjust anathemas, depositions, and excommunications, these theological battles were waged with pen and tongue, not rack and fire. Until the eleventh-century Byzantine burning of Basil the Bogomil (a quasi-Manichaean revivalist movement), there was no moment comparable to that when Jan Huss at the stake in 1415 uttered "O sancta simplicitas!" as an old peasant approached to throw a faggot on to the flames.

In historical terms, the controversy lasted 726-843, launched by emperors Leo III and son Constantine V, countered by John of Damascus' eloquent defence of iconodulia and the 731 Roman synods of Pope Gregory III, halted by the Second Nicene Council (787) and the empress Irene (797), renewed by Leo V and Theophilus, at whose death Iconoclasm was finally quashed.

In the eyes of the ODCC, it was "more important for its practical than its theological results, being the last step towards the great schism between East and West before the actual breach, the ground prepared for the final separation between the Independent Church of the West and the Church of the Byzantine Empire."

In point of fact, it had long been simmering. Reservations over, if not hostility to, icons can be traced back to (e.g.)Romans 1.18-23, Origen (Against Celsus 8), Canon 36 of the Council of Elvira (early 4th century), and such Fathers as Epiphanius, Eusebius, and Amphilochius. On the other side, approval was voiced by such as Clement (Stromata 7.11), Basil (On the Holy Spirit 18.45), Athanasius (Against the Arians 3.5), Gregory Nazianzenus (Against Julian 1.80), the pseudo-Dionysius (On the Divine Names 1.4), and the Council in Trullo of 692.

Many explanations have been advanced for Iconoclasm. Byzantine ones stressed the influence of Jewish (Exodus 20.4) and Islamic hostility.

Leo III himself argued that the Arab conquests were God's punishment for his people's idolatry. More cynical theories include economics--emperors seized this pretext to confiscate church and monastic treasures, and Caesaro-Papism--reassertion of the imperial cult and authority. Also, certain elements in the Church viewed the cult of saints as centrifugally dangerous to ecclesiastical control. A more honourable motive was attached to those who wished to establish the Cross as the prime pictorial symbol of the faith, a theme prominent in the sermons of John Chrysostom.

In many cases, by accident or design, the iconoclasts muddied the water, confusing veneration of icons with literal worship. The true use and value of religious art is perhaps best summed up in this devotional epigram (one of several) by the sixth-century Byzantine poet-historian Agathias (Greek Anthology 1.34):

"Greatly daring was the wax that formed the image of the invisible Archangel Michael, incorporeal in the essence of his form. Yet it is not without grace; for a man gazing upon the image directs his mind to a higher contemplation. No longer has he a confused veneration, but imprinting the image in himself he fears him as if he were present. The eyes stir up the depth of the spirit, and Art can convey by colours the prayers of the Soul."

This may be glossed by a simple yet vital point. In an age of mass illiteracy, icons served not just as pictures but as texts for those who could not read their bibles--visual theology.

There was no revival of Iconoclasm as such after 843. A poetic inscription carved about a decade later in the imperial Great Palace at Constantinople proclaims (to borrow a title from Catholic novelist Graham Greene) the end of the affair:

"The ray of truth has shone forth again and has dimmed the eyes of the impostors. Piety has grown, error has fallen, faith blooms, and Grace spreads out. For, Behold, once more the image of Christ shines above the royal throne and confounds the murky heresies."

Editor: This ends our series on the Church Fathers of both East (Greek) and West (Latin) begun with "Ignatius of Antioch" in the April 2004 edition and appearing thereafter in monthly installments. We thank Professor Baldwin for his major contribution to the theological-historical understanding of our Faith.

Barry Baldwin is Emeritus Professor of Classics from the University of Calgary.
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Author:Baldwin, Barry
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Date:Mar 1, 2006
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