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SermonIndex.net : Christian Books : CHAPTER IV. THE GNOSTICS, THE MONTANISTS, AND THE MANICHAEANS.

The Ancient Church by William Dool Killen

CHAPTER IV. THE GNOSTICS, THE MONTANISTS, AND THE MANICHAEANS.

When Christianity made its appearance in the world, it produced a profound sensation. It spread on all sides with great rapidity; it was at once felt to be a religion for the common people; and some individuals of highly cultivated minds soon acknowledged its authority. For a time its progress was impeded by the persecutions of Nero and Domitian; but, about the beginning of the second century, it started upon a new career of prosperous advancement, and quickly acquired such a position that the most distinguished scholars and philosophers could no longer overlook its pretensions. In the reigns of Trajan and Hadrian, a considerable number of men of learning were already in its ranks; but it would appear that, on the whole, it derived very equivocal aid from the presence of these new adherents. Not a few of the literati who joined its standard attempted to corrupt it; and one hundred and twenty years after the death of the Apostle John, the champions of orthodoxy had to contend against no less than thirty-two heresies. [429:1]

Of those who now adulterated the gospel, the Gnostics were by far the most subtle, the most active, and the most formidable. The leaders of the party were all men of education; and as they were to be found chiefly in the large cities, the Church in these centres of influence was in no small degree embarrassed and endangered by their speculations. Some of the peculiarities of Gnosticism have been already noticed; [430:1] but as the second century was the period when it made most progress and awakened most anxiety, we must here advert more distinctly to its outlines. The three great antagonists of the gospel were the Grecian philosophy, the heathen mythology, and a degenerate Judaism; and Gnosticism may be described as an attempt to effect a compromise between Christianity and these rivals. As might have been expected, the attempt met with much encouragement; for many, who hesitated to accept the new religion unconditionally, were constrained to acknowledge that it exhibited many indications of truth and divinity; and they were, therefore, prepared to look on it with favour when presented to them in an altered shape and furnished with certain favourite appendages. The Gnostics called themselves believers; and their most celebrated teachers would willingly have remained in the bosom of the Church; but it soon appeared that their principles were subversive of the New Testament revelation; and they were accordingly excluded from ecclesiastical fellowship.

Gnosticism assumed a variety of forms, and almost every one of its teachers had his own distinctive creed; but, as a system, it was always known by certain remarkable features. It uniformly ignored the doctrine that God made all things out of nothing; [430:2] and, taking for granted the eternity of matter, it tried to account, on philosophical principles, for the moral and spiritual phenomena of the world which we inhabit. The Gnosis, [430:3] or knowledge, which it supplied, and from which it derived its designation, was a strange congeries of wild speculations. The Scriptures describe the Most High as humbling Himself to behold the things that are on earth, [431:1] as exercising a constant providence over all His creatures, as decking the lilies of the valley, and as numbering the very hairs of our heads; but Gnosticism exhibited the Supreme God as separated by an immeasurable interval from matter, and as having no direct communication with anything thus contaminated. The theory by means of which many of its adherents endeavoured to solve the problem of the origin of evil, [431:2] and to trace the connexion between the finite and the infinite, was not without ingenuity. They maintained that a series of Aeons, or divine beings, emanated from the Primal Essence; but, as sound issuing from a given point gradually becomes fainter until it is finally lost in silence, each generation of Aeons, as it receded from the great Fountain of Spiritual Existence, lost somewhat of the vigour of divinity; and at length an Aeon was produced without power sufficient to maintain its place in the Pleroma, or habitation of the Godhead. This scheme of a series of Aeons of gradually decreasing excellence was apparently designed to shew how, from an Almighty and Perfect Intelligence, a weak and erring being might be generated. There were Gnostics who carried the principle of attenuation so far as to teach that the inhabitants of the celestial world were distributed into no less than three hundred and sixty-five heavens, [431:3] each somewhat inferior to the other. According to some of these systems, an Aeon removed by many emanations from the source of Deity, and, in consequence, possessed of comparatively little strength, passed over the bounds of the Pleroma, and imparted life to matter. Another Power, called the Demiurge, was now produced, who, out of the materials already in existence, fashioned the present world. The human race, ushered, under such circumstances, upon the stage of time, are ignorant of the true God, and in bondage to corrupt matter. But all men are not in a state of equal degradation. Some possess a spiritual nature; some, a physical or animal nature; and some, only a corporeal or carnal nature. Jesus now appeared, and, at His baptism in the Jordan, Christ, a powerful Aeon, joined Him, that He might be fitted for redeeming souls from the ignorance and slavery in which they are entangled. This Saviour taught the human family the knowledge of the true God. Jesus was seized and led to crucifixion, and the Aeon Christ now departed from Him; but, as His body was composed of the finest ethereal elements, and was, in fact, a phantom, He did not really suffer on the accursed tree. Many of the Gnostics taught that there are two spheres of future enjoyment. They held that, whilst the spiritual natures shall be restored to the Pleroma, the physical or animal natures shall be admitted to an inferior state of happiness; and that such souls as are found to be incapable of purification shall be consigned to perdition or annihilation.

Whilst, according to all the Gnostics, the Demiurge, or maker of this world, is far inferior to the Supreme Deity, these system-builders were by no means agreed as to his position and his functions. Some of them regarded him as an Aeon of inferior intelligence who acted in obedience to the will of the Great God; others conceived that he was no other than the God of the Jews, who, in their estimation, was a Being of somewhat rugged and intractable character; whilst others contended that he was an Evil Power at open war with the righteous Sovereign of the universe. The Gnostics also differed in their views respecting matter. Those of them who were Egyptians, and who had been addicted to the study of the Platonic philosophy, held matter to be inert until impregnated with life; but the Syrians, who borrowed much from the Oriental theology, taught that it was eternally subject to a Lord, or Ruler, who had been perpetually at variance with the Great God of the Pleroma.

Two of the most distinguished Gnostic teachers who flourished in the early part of the second century were Saturninus of Antioch and Basilides of Alexandria. [433:1] Valentine, who appeared somewhat later, and who is supposed to have first excited attention at Rome about A.D.140, was still more celebrated. He taught that in the Pleroma there are fifteen male and fifteen female Aeons, whom he professed to distinguish by their names; and he even proceeded to point out how they are distributed into married pairs. Some have supposed that certain deep philosophical truths were here concealed by him under the veil of allegory. As he, like others of the same class, conveyed parts of his Gnosis only into the ears of the initiated, it may be that the explanation of its symbols was reserved for those who were thus made acquainted with its secret wisdom. It has been alleged that he personified the attributes of God, and that the Aeons, whom he names and joins together, are simply those divine perfections which, when combined, are fitted to produce the most remarkable results. Thus, he associated Profundity and Thought, Intelligence and Truth, Reason and Life. [433:2] His system seems to have had many attractions for his age, as his disciples, in considerable numbers, were soon to be found both in the East and in the West.

When Valentine was at Rome, Marcion, another heresiarch of the same class, was also in the great metropolis. [433:3] This man is said to have been born in Pontus, and though some of the fathers have attempted to fix a stain upon his early reputation, his subsequent character seems to have been irreproachable. [434:1] There is reason to think that he was one of the most upright and amiable of the Gnostics. These errorists were charged by their orthodox antagonists with gross immorality; and there was often, perhaps, too much ground for the accusation; for some of them, such as Carpocrates, [434:2] avowed and encouraged the most shameless licentiousness; but others, such as Marcion, were noted for their ascetic strictness. All the more respectable Gnostics appear to have recommended themselves to public confidence by the austerity of their discipline. They enjoined rigorous fasting, and inculcated abstinence from wine, flesh-meat, and marriage. The Oriental theology, as well as the Platonic philosophy, sanctioned such a mode of living; and, therefore, those by whom it was practised were in a favourable position for gaining the public ear when they came forward as theological instructors.

Gnosticism may appear to us a most fantastic system; but, in the second century, it was dreaded as a very formidable adversary by the Church; and the extent to which it spread attests that it possessed not a few of the elements of popularity. Its doctrine of Aeons, or Divine Emanations, was quite in accordance with theories which had then gained extensive currency; and its account of the formation of the present world was countenanced by established modes of thinking. Many who cherished a hereditary prejudice against Judaism were gratified by the announcement that the Demiurge was no other than the God of the Israelites; and many more were flattered by the statement that some souls are essentially purer and better than others. [435:1] The age was sunk in sensuality; and, as it was the great boast of the heresiarchs that their Gnosis secured freedom from the dominion of the flesh, multitudes, who secretly sighed for deliverance, were thus induced to test its efficacy. But Gnosticism, in whatever form it presented itself, was a miserable perversion of the gospel. Some of its teachers entirely rejected the Old Testament; others reduced its history to a myth; whilst all mutilated and misinterpreted the writings of the apostles and evangelists. Like the Jewish Cabbalists, who made void the law of God by expositions which fancy suggested and tradition embalmed, the Gnostics by their far-fetched and unnatural comments, threw an air of obscurity over the plainest passages of the New Testament. Some of them, aware that they could derive no support from the inspired records, actually fabricated Gospels, and affixed to them the names of apostles or evangelists, in the hope of thus obtaining credit for the spurious documents. [435:2] Whilst Gnosticism in this way set aside the authority of the Word of God, it also lowered the dignity of the Saviour; and even when Christ was most favourably represented by it, He was but an Aeon removed at the distance of several intermediate generations from the Supreme Ruler of the universe. The propagators of this system altogether misconceived the scope of the gospel dispensation. They substituted salvation by carnal ordinances for salvation by faith; they represented man in his natural state rather as an ignoramus than a sinner; and, whilst they absurdly magnified their own Gnosis, they entirely discarded the doctrine of a vicarious atonement.

Shortly after the middle of the second century the Church began to be troubled by a heresy in some respects very different from Gnosticism. At that time the persecuting spirit displayed by Marcus Aurelius filled the Christians throughout the Empire with alarm, and those of them who were given to despondency began to entertain the most gloomy anticipations. An individual, named Montanus, who laid claim to prophetic endowments, now appeared in a village on the borders of Phrygia; and though he seems to have possessed a rather mean capacity, his discipline was so suited to the taste of many, and the predictions which he uttered so accorded with prevailing apprehensions, that he soon created a deep impression. When he first came forward in the character of a Divine Instructor he had been recently converted to Christianity; and he seems to have strangely misapprehended the nature of the gospel. When he delivered his pretended communications from heaven, he is said to have wrought himself up into a state of frenzied excitement. His countrymen, who had been accustomed to witness the ecstasies of the priests of Bacchus and Cybele, saw proofs of a divine impulse in his bodily contortions; and some of them at once acknowledged his extraordinary mission. By means of two wealthy female associates, named Priscilla and Maximilla, who also professed to utter prophecies, Montanus was enabled rapidly to extend his influence. His fame spread abroad on all sides; and, in a few years, he had followers in Europe and in Africa, as well as in Asia.

It cannot be said that this heresiarch attempted to overturn the creed of the Church. He was neither a profound thinker nor a logical reasoner; and he certainly had not maturely studied the science of theology. But he possessed an ardent temperament, and he seems to have mistaken the suggestions of his own fanaticism for the dictates of inspiration. The doctrine of the personal reign of Christ during the millennium appears to have formed a prominent topic in his ministrations. [437:1] He maintained that the discipline of the Church had been left incomplete by the apostles, and that he was empowered to supply a better code of regulations. According to some he proclaimed himself the Paraclete; but, if so, he most grievously belied his assumed name, for his system was far better fitted to induce despondency than to inspire comfort. All his precepts were conceived in the sour and contracted spirit of mere ritualism. He insisted upon long fasts; he condemned second marriages; [437:2] he inveighed against all who endeavoured to save themselves by flight in times of persecution; and he asserted that such as had once been guilty of any heinous transgression should never again be admitted to ecclesiastical fellowship. Whilst he promulgated this stern discipline, he at the same time delivered the most dismal predictions, announcing, among other things, the speedy catastrophe of the Roman Empire. He also gave out that the Phrygian village where he ministered was to become the New Jerusalem of renovated Christianity.

But the Church was still too strongly impregnated with the free spirit of the gospel to submit to such a prophet as Montanus. He had, however, powerful advocates, and even a Roman bishop at one time gave him countenance. [437:3] Though his discipline commended itself to the morose and pharisaical, it was rejected by those who rightly understood the mystery of godliness. Several councils were held to discuss its merits, and it was emphatically condemned. [438:1] The signal failure of some of the Montanist predictions had greatly lowered the credit of the party; Montanus was pronounced a false prophet; and though the sect was supported by Tertullian, the most vigorous writer of the age, it gradually ceased to attract notice. [438:2]

About a century after the appearance of Montanus, another individual, in a more remote part of Asia, acquired great notoriety as a heresiarch. The doctrine of two First Principles, a good deity and an evil deity, had been long current in the East. Even in the days of Isaiah we may trace its existence, for there is a most significant allusion to it in one of his prophecies, in which Jehovah is represented as saying -- |I am the Lord, and there is none else, there is no God beside me.... I form the light, and create darkness; I make peace, and create evil: I the Lord do all these things.| [438:3] About the fifth century before Christ, the Persian theology had been reformed by Zoroaster, and the subordination of the two Principles to one God, the author of both, had been acknowledged as an article of the established creed. In the early part of the third century of the Christian era, there was a struggle between the adherents of the old and the new faith of Parsism; and the supporters of the views of Zoroaster had been again successful. But a considerable party still refused to relinquish the doctrine of the independence of the two Principles; and some of these probably joined themselves to Mani, a Persian by birth, who, in the latter half of the third century, became distinguished as the propagator of a species of mongrel Christianity. This man, who was born about A.D.240, possessed genius of a high order. Though he finished his career when he was only thirty-seven years of age, he had already risen to eminence among his countrymen, and attracted the notice of several successive sovereigns. He is said to have been a skilful physician, an accomplished painter, and an excellent astronomer, as well as an acute metaphysician. Like Montanus, he laid claim to a divine commission, and alleged that he was the Paraclete who was promised to guide into all truth. He maintained that there are two First Principles of all things, light and darkness: God, in the kingdom of light, and the devil, in the kingdom of darkness, have existed from eternity. Mani thus accounted for the phenomena of the world around us -- |Over the kingdom of light,| said this heresiarch, |ruled God the Father, eternal in His sacred race, glorious in His might, the truth by His very essence.... But the Father himself, glorious in His majesty; incomprehensible in His greatness, has united with Himself blessed and glorious Aeons, in number and greatness surpassing estimation.| [439:1] He taught that Christ appeared to liberate the light from the darkness, and that he himself was now deputed to reveal the mysteries of the universe, and to assist men in recovering their freedom. He rejected a great portion of the canon of Scripture, and substituted certain writings of his own, which his followers were to receive as of divine authority. His disciples, called Manichees or Manichaeans, assumed the name of a Church, and were divided into two classes, the Elect and the Hearers. The Elect, who were comparatively few, were the sacred order. They alone were made acquainted with the mysteries, or more recondite doctrines, of the sect; they practised extreme abstinence; they subsisted chiefly upon olives; [439:2] and they lived in celibacy. They were not to kill, or even wound, an animal; neither were they to pull up a vegetable, or pluck a flower. The Hearers were permitted to share in the business and pleasures of the world, but they were taught only the elements of the system. After death, according to Mani, souls do not pass immediately into the world of light. They must first undergo a two-fold purification; one, by water in the moon; another, by fire in the sun.

Mani had provoked the enmity of the Magians; and, at their instigation, he was consigned, about A.D.277, by order of the Persian monarch, to a cruel and ignominious death. But the sect which he had organized did not die along with him. His system was well fitted to please the Oriental fancy; its promise of a higher wisdom to those who obtained admission into the class of the Elect encouraged the credulity of the auditors; and, to such as had not carefully studied the Christian revelation, its hypothesis of a Good and of an Evil Deity accounted rather plausibly for the mingled good and evil of our present existence. The Manichaeans were exposed to much suffering in the country where they first appeared; and, as a sect of Persian origin, they were oppressed by the Roman government; but they were not extinguished by persecution, and, far down in the middle ages, they still occasionally figure in the drama of history.

Synods and councils may pass resolutions condemnatory of false doctrine, but it is somewhat more difficult to counteract the seduction of the principles from which heresies derive their influence. The Gnostics, the Montanists, and the Manichaeans, owed much of their strength to fallacies and superstitions with which the Christian teachers of the age were not fully prepared to grapple; and hence it was that, whilst the errorists themselves were denounced by ecclesiastical authority, a large portion of their peculiar leaven found its way into the Church, and gradually produced an immense change in its doctrine and discipline. A notice of the more important of the false sentiments and dangerous practices which the heretics propagated and the catholics adopted, may enable us to estimate the amount of the damage which the cause of truth now sustained.

The Montanists recognised the distinction of venial and mortal sins. They held that a professed disciple, who was guilty of what they called mortal sin, should never again be admitted to sealing ordinances. [441:1] It is apparent from the writings of Hippolytus, the famous bishop of Portus, that, in the early part of the third century, some of the most influential of the catholics cordially supported this principle. Soon afterwards it was openly advocated by a powerful party in the Church of Borne, and its rejection by Cornelius, then at the head of that community, led to the schism of Novatian. But the distinction of venial and mortal sins, upon which it proceeded, was even now generally acknowledged. This distinction, which lies at the basis of the ancient penitential discipline, was already beginning to vitiate the whole catholic theology. Some sins, it is true, are more heinous than others, but the comparative turpitude of transgressions depends much on the circumstances in which they are committed. The wages of every sin is death, [441:2] and it is absurd to attempt to give a stereotyped character to any one violation of God's law by classing it, in regard to the extent of its guilt, in a particular category. Christianity regards sin, in whatever form, as a spiritual poison; and instead of seeking to solve the curious problem -- how much of it may exist in the soul without the destruction of spiritual life? -- it wisely instructs us to guard against it in our very thoughts, and to abstain from even the |appearance of evil.| [442:1] |When lust,| or indwelling depravity of any description, |has conceived, it bringeth forth sin; and sin, when it is finished, bringeth forth death.| [442:2] Experience has demonstrated that the admission of the distinction of venial and mortal sins is most perilous to the best interests of the Christian community; for, whilst it is without foundation in the inspired statutebook, it must inevitably lead to the neglect or careless performance of many duties which the Most High has solemnly enjoined.

The Platonic philosophy taught the necessity of a state of purification after death; [442:3] and a modification of this doctrine formed part of at least some of the systems of Gnosticism. [442:4] It is inculcated by Tertullian, the great champion of Montanism; [442:5] and we have seen how, according to Mani, departed souls must pass, first to the moon, and then to the sun, that they may thus undergo a twofold purgation. Here, again, a tenet originally promulgated by the heretics, became at length a portion of the creed of the Church. The Manichaeans, as well as the Gnostics, rejected the doctrine of the atonement, and as faith in the perfection of the cleansing virtue of the blood of Christ declined, a belief in Purgatory became popular. [442:6]

The Gnostics, with some exceptions, insisted greatly on the mortification of the body; and the same species of discipline was strenuously recommended by the Montanists and the Manichaeans. All these heretics believed that the largest measure of future happiness was to be realised by those who practised the most rigid asceticism. Mani admitted that an individual without any extraordinary amount of self-denial, might reach the world of Light, for he held out the hope of heaven to his Hearers; but he taught that its highest distinctions were reserved for the Elect, who scrupulously refrained from bodily indulgence. The Church silently adopted the same principle; and the distinction between precepts and counsels, which was soon introduced into its theology, rests upon this foundation. By precepts are understood those duties which are obligatory upon all; by counsels, those acts, whether of charity or abstinence, which are expected from such only as aim at superior sanctity. [443:1] The Elect of the Manichaeans, as well as many of the Gnostics, [443:2] declined to enter into wedlock, and the Montanists were disposed to confer double honour on the single clergy. [443:3] The Church did not long stand out against the fascinations of this popular delusion. Her members almost universally caught up the impression that marriage stands in the way of the cultivation of piety; and bishops and presbyters, who lived in celibacy, began to be regarded as more holy than their brethren. This feeling continued to gain strength; and from it sprung that vast system of monasticism which spread throughout Christendom, with such amazing rapidity, in the fourth century.

It thus appears that asceticism and clerical celibacy have been grafted on Christianity by Paganism. Hundreds of years before the New Testament was written, Buddhism could boast of multitudes of monks and eremites. [443:4] The Gnostics, in the early part of the second century, celebrated the praises of a single life; and the Elect of the Manichaeans were all celibates. Meanwhile marriage was permitted to the clergy of the catholic Church. Well might the apostle exhort the disciples to beware of those ordinances which have |a shew of wisdom in will-worship, and humility, and neglecting of the body,| [444:1] as the austerities of the cloister are miserable preparatives for the enjoyments of a world of purity and love. Christianity exhibited startling tokens of degeneracy when it attempted to nourish piety upon the spawn of the heathen superstitions. The gospel is designed for social and for active beings; as it hallows all the relations of life, it also teaches us how to use all the good gifts of God; and whilst celibacy and protracted fasting may only generate misanthropy and melancholy, faith, walking in the ways of obedience, can purify the heart, and induce the peace that passeth all understanding.

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