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The Ancient Church by William Dool Killen


The Greek word translated heresy [200:1] in our authorised version of the New Testament, did not primarily convey an unfavourable idea. It simply denoted a choice or preference. It was often employed to indicate the adoption of a particular class of philosophical sentiments; and thus it came to signify a sect or denomination. Hence we find ancient writers speaking of the heresy of the Stoics, the heresy of
the Epicureans, and the heresy of the Academics. The Jews who used the Greek language did not consider that the word necessarily reflected on the party it was intended to describe; and Josephus, who was himself a Pharisee, accordingly discourses of the three heresies of the Pharisees, the Sadducees, and the Essenes. [200:2] The Apostle Paul, when speaking of his own history prior to his conversion, says, that |after the strictest heresy| of his religion he lived a Pharisee. [200:3] We learn, too, from the book of the Acts, that the early Christians were known as |the heresy of the Nazarenes.| [200:4] But very soon the word began to be employed to denote something which the gospel could not sanction; and accordingly, in the Epistle to the Galatians, heresies are enumerated among the works of the flesh. [200:5] It is not difficult to explain why Christian writers at an early date were led to attach such a meaning to a term which had hitherto been understood to imply nothing reprehensible. The New Testament teaches us to regard an erroneous theology as sinful, and traces every deviation from |the one faith| of the gospel to the corruption of a darkened intellect. [201:1] It declares -- |He that believeth not is condemned already, because he hath not believed in the name of the only-begotten Son of God; and this is the condemnation, that light is come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil.| [201:2] Thus it was that the most ancient ecclesiastical authors described all classes of unbelievers, sceptics, and innovators, under the general name of heretics. Persons who in matters of religion made a false choice, of whatever kind, were viewed as |vainly puffed up by a fleshly mind,| or as under the influence of some species of mental depravity.

It thus appears that heresy, in the first century, denoted every deviation from the Christian faith. Pagans and Jews, as well as professors of apocryphal forms of the gospel, were called heretics. [201:3] But in the New Testament our attention is directed chiefly to errorists who in some way disturbed the Church, and adulterated the doctrine taught by our Lord and His apostles. Paul refers to such characters when he says -- |A man that is an heretic, after the first and second admonition, reject;| [201:4] and Peter also alludes to them when he speaks of false teachers who were to appear and |privily bring in damnable heresies.| [201:5]

The earliest corrupters of the gospel were unquestionably those who endeavoured to impose the observance of the Mosaic law on the converted Gentiles. Their proceedings were condemned in the Council of Jerusalem, mentioned in the fifteenth chapter of the Acts of the Apostles; and Paul, in his letter to the Galatians, subsequently exposed their infatuation. But evangelical truth had, perhaps, more to fear from dilution with the speculations of the Jewish and pagan literati. [202:1] The apostle had this evil in view when he said to the Colossians -- |Beware lest any man spoil you through philosophy and vain deceit, after the tradition of men, after the rudiments of the world, and not after Christ.| [202:2] He likewise emphatically attested the danger to be apprehended from it when he addressed to his own son in the faith the impassioned admonition -- |O Timothy, keep that which is committed to thy trust, avoiding profane and vain babblings, and oppositions of science falsely so called.| [202:3]

There is no reason to doubt that the |science| or |philosophy| of which Paul was so anxious that the disciples should beware, was the same which was afterwards so well known by the designation of Gnosticism. The second century was the period of its most vigorous development, and it then, for a time, almost engrossed the attention of the Church; but it was already beginning to exert a pernicious influence, and it is therefore noticed by the vigilant apostle. Whilst it acknowledged, to a certain extent, the authority of the Christian revelation, it also borrowed largely from Platonism; and, in a spirit of accommodation to the system of the Athenian sage, it rejected some of the leading doctrines of the gospel. Plato never seems to have entertained the sublime conception of the creation of all things out of nothing by the word of the Most High. He held that matter is essentially evil, and that it existed from eternity. [202:4] The false teachers who disturbed the Church in the apostolic age adopted both these views; and the errors which they propagated and of which the New Testament takes notice, flowed from their unsound philosophy by direct and necessary consequence. As a right understanding of certain passages of Scripture depends on an acquaintance with their system, it may here be expedient to advert somewhat more particularly to a few of its peculiar features.

The Gnostics alleged that the present world owes neither its origin nor its arrangement to the Supreme God. They maintained that its constituent parts have been always in existence; and that, as the great Father of Lights would have been contaminated by contact with corrupt matter, the visible frame of things was fashioned, without His knowledge, by an inferior Intelligence. These principles obviously derogated from the glory of Jehovah. By ascribing to matter an independent and eternal existence, they impugned the doctrine of God's Omnipotent Sovereignty; and by representing it as regulated without His sanction by a spiritual agent of a lower rank, they denied His Universal Providence. The apostle, therefore, felt it necessary to enter his protest against all such cosmogonies. He declared that Jehovah alone, as Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, existed from eternity; and that all things spiritual and material arose out of nothing in obedience to the word of the second person of the Godhead. |By Him,| says he, |were all things created, that are in heaven and that are in earth, visible and invisible, whether they be thrones or dominions or principalities or powers; all things were created by Him and for Him, and He is before all things, and by Him all things consist.| [203:1]

The philosophical system of the Gnostics also led them to adopt false views respecting the body of Christ. As, according to their theory, the Messiah appeared to deliver men from the bondage of evil matter, they could not consistently acknowledge that He himself inhabited an earthly tabernacle. They refused to admit that our Lord was born of a human parent; and, as they asserted that He had a body only in appearance, or that His visible form as man was in reality a phantom, they were at length known by the title of Docetae. [204:1] The Apostle John repeatedly attests the folly and the danger of such speculations. |The Word,| says he, |was made flesh and dwelt among us. [204:2] ... Every spirit that confesseth not that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh is not of God. [204:3] ... That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon, and our hands have handled of the Word of Life ... declare we unto you. [204:4] ... Many deceivers are entered into the world who confess not that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh.| [204:5]

Reasoning from the principle that evil is inherent in matter, the Gnostics believed the union of the soul and the body to be a calamity. According to their views the spiritual being can never attain the perfection of which he is susceptible so long as he remains connected with his present corporeal organization. Hence they rejected the doctrine of the resurrection of the body. When Paul asks the Corinthians -- |How say some among you that there is no resurrection of the dead?| [204:6] -- he alludes to the Gnostic denial of this article of the Christian theology. He also refers to the same circumstance when he denounces the |profane and vain babblings| of those who |concerning the truth| had erred, |saying that the resurrection is past already.| [204:7] These heretics, it would appear, maintained that an introduction to their Gnosis, or knowledge, was the only genuine deliverance from the dominion of death; and argued accordingly that, in the case of those who had been initiated into the mysteries of their system, the resurrection was |past already.|

The ancient Christian writers concur in stating that Simon, mentioned in the Acts of the Apostles, [205:1] and commonly called Simon Magus, was the father of the sects of the Gnostics. [205:2] He was a Samaritan by birth, and after the rebuke he received from Peter, [205:3] he is reported to have withdrawn from the Church, and to have concocted a theology of his own, into which he imported some elements borrowed from Christianity. At a subsequent period he travelled to Rome, where he attracted attention by the novelty of his creed, and the boldness of his pretensions. We are told that, prior to his baptism by Philip, he |had used sorcery, and bewitched the people of Samaria, giving out that himself was some great one;| [205:4] and subsequently he seems to have pursued a similar career. According to a very early authority, nearly all the inhabitants of his native country, and a few persons in other districts, worshipped him as the first or supreme God. [205:5] There is, probably, some exaggeration in this statement; but there seems no reason to doubt that he laid claim to extraordinary powers, maintaining that the same spirit which had been imparted to Jesus, had descended on himself. He is also said to have denied that our Lord had a real body. Some, who did not enrol themselves under his standard, soon partially adopted his principles; and there is cause to think that Hymenaeus, Philetus, Alexander, Phygellus, and Hermogenes, mentioned in the New Testament, [205:6] were all more or less tinctured with the spirit of Gnosticism. Other heresiarchs, not named in the sacred record, are known to have flourished towards the close of the first century. Of these the most famous were Carpocrates, Cerinthus, and Ebion. [206:1] There is a tradition that John, |the beloved disciple,| came in contact with Cerinthus, when going into a bath at Ephesus, and retired abruptly from the place, that he might not compromise himself by remaining in the same building with such an enemy of the Christian revelation. [206:2] It is also stated that the same apostle's testimony to the dignity of the Word, in the beginning of his Gospel, was designed as an antidote to the errors of this heresiarch. [206:3]

When the gospel exerts its proper influence on the character it produces an enlightened, genial, and consistent piety; but a false faith is apt to lead, in practice, to one of two extremes, either the asceticism of the Essene, or the sensualism of the Sadducee. Gnosticism developed itself in both these directions. Some of its advocates maintained that, as matter is essentially evil, the corrupt propensities of the body should be kept in constant subjection by a life of rigorous mortification; others held that, as the principle of evil is inherent in the corporeal frame, the malady is beyond the reach of cure, and that, therefore, the animal nature should be permitted freely to indulge its peculiar appetites. To the latter party, as some think, belonged the Nicolaitanes noticed by John in the Apocalypse. [206:4] They are said to have derived their name from Nicolas, one of the seven deacons ordained by the apostles; [206:5] and to have been a class of Gnostics noted for their licentiousness. The origin of the designation may, perhaps, admit of some dispute; but it is certain that those to whom it was applied were alike lax in principle and dissolute in practice, for the Spirit of God has declared His abhorrence as well of the |doctrine,| as of |the deeds of the Nicolaitanes.| [207:1]

Though the Jews, at the time of the appearance of our Lord, were so much divided in sentiment, and though the Pharisees, the Sadducees, and the Essenes, had each their theological peculiarities, their sectarianism did not involve any complete severance or separation. Notwithstanding their differences of creed, the Pharisees and Sadducees sat together in the Sanhedrim, [207:2] and worshipped together in the temple. All the seed of Abraham constituted one Church, and congregated in the same sacred courts to celebrate the great festivals. In the Christian Church, in the days of the apostles, there was something approaching to the same outward unity. Though, for instance, there were so many parties among the Corinthians -- though one said, I am of Paul, and another I am of Apollos, and another I am of Cephas, and another I am of Christ -- all assembled in the same place to join in the same worship, and to partake of the same Eucharist. Those who withdrew from the disciples with whom they had been previously associated, appear generally to have relinquished altogether the profession of Christianity. [207:3] Some, at least, of the Gnostics acted very differently. When danger appeared they were inclined to temporize, and to discontinue their attendance on the worship of the Church; but they were desirous to remain still nominally connected with the great body of believers. [207:4] Any form of alliance with such dangerous errorists was, however, considered a cause of scandal; and the inspired teachers of the gospel insisted on their exclusion from ecclesiastical fellowship. Hence Paul declares that he had delivered Hymenaeus and Alexander |unto Satan| that they might learn |not to blaspheme;| [208:1] and John upbraids the Church in Pergamos because it retained in its communion |them that held the doctrine of the Nicolaitanes.| [208:2] During the first century the Gnostics seem to have been unable to create anything like a schism among those who had embraced Christianity. Whilst the apostles lived the |science falsely so called| could not pretend to a divine sanction; and though here and there they displayed considerable activity in the dissemination of their principles, they were sternly and effectually discountenanced. It is accordingly stated by one of the earliest ecclesiastical writers that, in the time of Simeon of Jerusalem, who finished his career in the beginning of the second century, |they called the Church as yet a virgin, inasmuch as it was not yet corrupted by vain discourses.| [208:3] Other writers concur in bearing testimony to the fact that, whilst the apostles were on earth, false teachers failed |to divide the unity| of the Christian commonwealth, |by the introduction of corrupt doctrines.| [208:4]

The gospel affords scope for the healthful and vigorous exercise of the human understanding, and it is itself the highest and the purest wisdom. It likewise supplies a test for ascertaining the state of the heart. Those who receive it with faith unfeigned will delight to meditate on its wonderful discoveries; but those who are unrenewed in the spirit of their minds will render to it only a doubtful submission, and will pervert its plainest announcements. The apostle therefore says -- |There must be also heresies among you, that they which are approved may be made manifest among you.| [208:5] The heretic is made manifest alike by his deviations from the doctrines and the precepts of revelation. His creed does not exhibit the consistency of truth, and his life fails to display the beauty of holiness. Bible Christianity is neither superstitious nor sceptical, neither austere nor sensual. |The wisdom that is from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, and easy to be intreated, full of mercy and good fruits, without partiality and without hypocrisy.| [209:1]

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