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History of the Christian Church, Volume II: Ante-Nicene Christianity. A.D. 100-325.
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§ 137. Catholic Orthodoxy.


I. Sources: The doctrinal and polemical writings of the ante-Nicene fathers, especially Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, Hippolytus, Tertullian, Cyprian, Clement Of Alex., and Origen.

II. Literature: The relevant sections in the works on Doctrine History by Petravius, Münscher, Neander, Giesler, Baur, Hagenbach, Shedd, Nitzsch, Harnack (first vol. 1886; 2d ed. 1888).

Jos. Schwane (R.C.): Dogmengeschichte der vornicänischen Zeit. Münster, 1862.

Edm. De Pressensé: Heresy and Christian Doctrine, transl. by Annie Harwood. Lond. 1873.

The special literature see below. Comp. also the Lit. in Ch. XIII.


By the wide-spread errors described in the preceding chapter, the church was challenged to a mighty intellectual combat, from which she came forth victorious, according to the promise of her Lord, that the Holy Spirit should guide her into the whole truth. To the subjective, baseless, and ever-changing speculations, dreams, and fictions of the heretics, she opposed the substantial, solid realities of the divine revelation. Christian theology grew, indeed, as by inward necessity, from the demand of faith for knowledge. But heresy, Gnosticism in particular, gave it a powerful impulse from without, and came as a fertilizing thunder-storm upon the field. The church possessed the truth from the beginning, in the experience of faith, and in the Holy Scriptures, which she handed down with scrupulous fidelity from generation to generation. But now came the task of developing the substance of the Christian truth in theoretical form 934934    λογικώτερον, as Eusebius has it.34fortifying it on all sides, and presenting it in clear light before the understanding. Thus the Christian polemic and dogmatic theology, or the church’s logical apprehension of the doctrines of salvation, unfolded itself in this conflict with heresy; as the apologetic literature and martyrdom had arisen through Jewish and heathen persecution.

From this time forth the distinction between catholic and heretical, orthodoxy and heterodoxy, the faith of the church and dissenting private opinion, became steadily more prominent. Every doctrine which agreed with the holy scriptures and the faith of the church, was received as catholic; that is, universal, and exclusive.935935    The term catholic is first used in its ecclesiastical sense by Ignatius, the zealous advocate of episcopacy. Ad Smyrn. c. 8: ὅπου ἂν ᾖ Χριστὸσ Ἰησους , έκεῖ ἡ καθολικὴ ἐκκλησίαubi est Christus Jesus, illic Catholica Ecclesia. So also in the Letter of the Church of Smyrna on the martyrdom of Polycarp (155), in Eusebius, H. E. IV. 15.35 Whatever deviated materially from this standard, every arbitrary notion, framed by this or that individual, every distortion or corruption of the revealed doctrines of Christianity, every departure from the public sentiment of the church, was considered heresy..936936    From αἵρεσις. See notes below.36

Almost all the church fathers came out against the contemporary heresies, with arguments from scripture, with the tradition of the church, and with rational demonstration, proving them inwardly inconsistent and absurd.

But in doing this, while they are one in spirit and purpose, they pursue two very different courses, determined by the differences between the Greek and Roman nationality, and by peculiarities of mental organization and the appointment of Providence. The Greek theology, above all the Alexandrian, represented by Clement and Origen, is predominantly idealistic and speculative, dealing with the objective doctrines of God, the incarnation, the trinity, and christology; endeavoring to supplant the false gnosis by a true knowledge, an orthodox philosophy, resting on the Christian pistis. It was strongly influenced by Platonic speculation in the Logos doctrine. The Latin theology, particularly the North African, whose most distinguished representatives are Tertullian and Cyprian, is more realistic and practical, concerned with the doctrines of human nature and of salvation, and more directly hostile to Gnosticism and philosophy. With this is connected the fact, that the Greek fathers were first philosophers; the Latin were mostly lawyers and statesmen; the former reached the Christian faith in the way of speculation, the latter in the spirit of practical morality. Characteristically, too, the Greek church built mainly upon the apostle John, pre-eminently the contemplative "divine;" the Latin upon Peter, the practical leader of the church. While Clement of Alexandria and Origen often wander away into cloudy, almost Gnostic speculation, and threaten to resolve the real substance of the Christian ideas into thin spiritualism, Tertullian sets himself implacably against Gnosticism and the heathen philosophy upon which it rests. "What fellowship," he asks, "is there between Athens and Jerusalem, the academy and the church, heretics and Christians?" But this difference was only relative. With all their spiritualism, the Alexandrians still committed themselves to a striking literalism; while, in spite of his aversion to philosophy, Tertullian labored with profound speculative ideas which came to their full birth in Augustin.

Irenaeus, who sprang from the Eastern church, and used the Greek language, but labored in the West, holds a kind of mediating position between the two branches of the church, and may be taken as, on the whole, the most moderate and sound representative of ecclesiastical orthodoxy in the ante-Nicene period. He is as decided against Gnosticism as Tertullian, without overlooking the speculative want betrayed in that system. His refutation of the Gnosis, 937937    Ἔλεγχος καὶ ἀνατροπὴ τῆς ψευδωνύμου γνώσεως37written between 177 and 192, is the leading polemic work of the second century. In the first book of this work Irenaeus gives a full account of the Valentinian system of Gnosis; in the second book be begins his refutation in philosophical and logical style; in the third, he brings against the system the catholic tradition and the holy, scriptures, and vindicates the orthodox doctrine of the unity of God, the creation of the world, the incarnation of the Logos, against the docetic denial of the true humanity of Christ and the Ebionitic denial of his true divinity; in the fourth book he further fortifies the same doctrines, and, against the antinomianism of the school of Marcion, demonstrates the unity of the Old and New Testaments; in the fifth and last book he presents his views on eschatology, particularly on the resurrection of the body—so offensive to the Gnostic spiritualism—and at the close treats of Antichrist, the end of the world, the intermediate state, and the millennium.

His disciple Hippolytus gives us, in the "Philosophumena," a still fuller account, in many respects, of the early heresies, and traces them up to, their sources in the heathen systems of philosophy, but does not go so deep into the exposition of the catholic doctrines of the church.

The leading effort in this polemic literature was, of course, to develop and establish positively the Christian truth; which is, at the same time, to refute most effectually the opposite error. The object was, particularly, to settle the doctrines of the rule of faith, the incarnation of God, and the true divinity and true humanity of Christ. In this effort the mind of the church, under the constant guidance of the divine word and the apostolic tradition, steered with unerring instinct between the threatening cliffs. Yet no little indefiniteness and obscurity still prevailed in the scientific apprehension and statement of these points. In this stormy time, too, there were as yet no general councils to, settle doctrinal controversy by the voice of the whole church. The dogmas of the trinity and the person of Christ, did not reach maturity and final symbolical definition until the following period, or the Nicene age.


Notes on Heresy.


The term heresy is derived from αἵρεσιςwhich means originally either capture (from αἱρέω), or election, choice (from αἱρέομαι), and assumed the additional idea of arbitrary opposition to public opinion and authority. In the N. Test. it designates a chosen way of life, a school or sect or party, not necessarily in a bad sense, and is applied to the Pharisees, the Sadducees, and even the Christians as a Jewish sect (Acts 5:17; 15:5; 24:5, 14; 26:5; 28:22); then it signifies discord, arising from difference of opinion (Gal. 5:20; 1 Cor. 11:19); and lastly error (2 Pet. 2:1, αἱρέσεις ἀπωλείαςdestructive heresies, or sects of perdition). This passage comes nearest to the ecclesiastical definition. The term heretic (αἱρετικὸς ἄνθρωπος) occurs only once, Tit 3:10, and means a factious man, a sectary, a partisan, rather than an errorist.

Constantine the Great still speaks of the Christian church as a sect, ἡ αἵρεσις ἡ καθολική, ἡ ἁγιωτάτη αἵρεσις(in a letter to Chrestus, bishop of Syracuse, in Euseb, H. E. X. c. 5, § 21 and 22, in Heinichen’s ed. I, 491). But after him church and sect became opposites, the former term being confined to the one ruling body, the latter to dissenting minorities.

The fathers commonly use heresy of false teaching, in opposition to Catholic doctrine, and schism of a breach of discipline, in opposition to Catholic government. The ancient heresiologists—mostly uncritical, credulous, and bigoted, though honest and pious, zealots for a narrow orthodoxy—unreasonably multiplied the heresies by extending them beyond the limits of Christianity, and counting all modifications and variations separately. Philastrius or Philastrus, bishop. of Brescia or Brixia (d. 387), in his Liber de Haeresibus, numbered 28 Jewish and 128 Christian heresies; Epiphanius of Cyprus (d. 403), in his Πανάριον. 80 heresies in all, 20 before and 60 after Christ; Augustin (d. 430), 88 Christian heresies, including Pelagianism; Proedestinatus, 90, including Pelagianism and Nestorianism. (Pope Pius IX. condemned 80 modern heresies, in his Syllabus of Errors, 1864.) Augustin says that it is "altogether impossible, or at any rate most difficult" to define heresy, and wisely adds that the spirit in which error is held, rather than error itself, constitutes heresy. There are innocent as well as guilty errors. Moreover, a great many people are better than their creed or no-creed, and a great many are worse than their creed, however orthodox it may be. The severest words of our Lord were directed against the hypocritical orthodoxy of the Pharisees. In the course of time heresy was defined to be a religious error held in wilful and persistent opposition to the truth after it has been defined and declared by the church in an authoritative manner, or "pertinax defensio dogmatis ecclesiae universalis judicio condemnati." Speculations on open questions of theology are no heresies Origen was no heretic in his age, but was condemned long after his death.

In the present divided state of Christendom there are different kinds of orthodoxy and heresy. Orthodoxy is conformity to a recognized creed or standard of public doctrine; heresy is a wilful departure from it. The Greek church rejects the Roman dogmas of the papacy, of the double procession of the Holy Ghost, the immaculate conception of the Virgin Mary, and the infallibility of the Pope, as heretical, because contrary to the teaching of the first seven oecumenical councils. The Roman church anathematized, in the Council of Trent, all the distinctive doctrines of the Protestant Reformation. Evangelical Protestants on the other hand regard the unscriptural traditions of the Greek and Roman churches as heretical. Among Protestant churches again there are minor doctrinal differences, which are held with various degrees of exclusiveness or liberality according to the degree of departure from the Roman Catholic church. Luther, for instance, would not tolerate Zwingli’s view on the Lord’s Supper, while Zwingli was willing to fraternize with him notwithstanding this difference. The Lutheran Formula of Concord, and the Calvinistic Synod of Dort rejected and condemned doctrines which are now held with impunity in orthodox evangelical churches. The danger of orthodoxy lies in the direction of exclusive and uncharitable bigotry, which contracts the truth; the danger of liberalism lies in the direction of laxity and indifferentism, which obliterates the eternal distinction between truth and error.

The apostles, guided by more than human wisdom, and endowed with more than ecclesiastical authority, judged severely of every essential departure from the revealed truth of salvation. Paul pronounced the anathema on the Judaizing teachers, who made circumcision a term of true church membership (Gal. 1:8), and calls them sarcastically "dogs" of the "concision" (Phil. 3:2, βλέπετε τοὺς κύνας ... τῆς κατατομῆς). He warned the elders of Ephesus against "grievous wolves" (λύκοι βαρεῖς) who would after his departure enter among them (Acts 20:29); and he characterizes the speculations of the rising gnosis falsely so called (ψευδώνυμος γνῶσις) as "doctrines of demons" (διδασκαλίαι δαιμονίων, 1 Tim. 4:1; Comp. 6:3–20; 2 Tim. 3:1 sqq.; 4:3 sqq.). John warns with equal earnestness and severity against all false teachers who deny the fact of the incarnation, and calls them antichrists (1 John 4:3; 2 John 7); and the second Epistle of Peter and the Epistle of Jude describe the heretics in the darkest colors.

We need not wonder, then, that the ante-Nicene fathers held the gnostic heretics of their days in the greatest abhorrence, and called them servants of Satan, beasts in human shape, dealers in deadly poison, robbers, and pirates. Polycarp (Ad Phil.c. 7), Ignatius (Ad Smyrn. c. 4), Justin M. (Apol. I. c. 26), Irenaeus (Adv. Haer. III. 3, 4), Hippolytus, Tertullian, even Clement of Alexandria, and Origen occupy essentially the same position of uncompromising hostility towards heresy is the fathers of the Nicene and post-Nicene ages. They regard it as the tares sown by the devil in the Lord’s field (Matt. 13:3–6 sqq). Hence Tertullian infers, "That which was first delivered is of the Lord and is true; whilst that is strange and false which was afterwards introduced" (Praescr. c. 31: "Ex ipso ordine manifestatur, id esse dominicum et verum quod sit prius traditum, id autem extraneum et falsum quod sit posterius inmissum"). There is indeed a necessity for heresies and sects (1 Cor. 11:19), but "woe to that man through whom the offence cometh" (Matt. 18:7). "It was necessary," says Tertullian (ib. 30), "that the Lord should be betrayed; but woe to the traitor."

Another characteristic feature of patristic polemics is to trace heresy, to mean motives, such as pride, disappointed ambition, sensual lust, and avarice. No allowance is made for different mental constitutions, educational influences, and other causes. There are, however, a few noble exceptions. Origen and Augustin admit the honesty and earnestness at least of some teachers of error.

We must notice two important points of difference between the ante-Nicene and later heresies, and the mode of punishing heresy.

1. The chief ante-Nicene heresies were undoubtedly radical perversions of Christian truth and admitted of no kind of compromise. Ebionism, Gnosticism, and Manichaeism were essentially anti-Christian. The church could not tolerate that medley of pagan sense and nonsense without endangering its very existence. But Montanists, Novatians, Donatists, Quartodecimanians, and other sects who differed on minor points of doctrine or discipline, were judged more mildly, and their baptism was acknowledged.

2. The punishment of heresy in the ante-Nicene church was purely ecclesiastical, and consisted in reproof, deposition, and excommunication. It had no effect on the civil status.

But as soon as church and state began to be united, temporal punishments, such as confiscation of property, exile, and death, were added by the civil magistrate with the approval of the church, in imitation of the Mosaic code, but in violation of the spirit and example of Christ and the apostles. Constantine opened the way in some edicts against the Donatists, a.d. 316. Valentinian I. forbade the public worship of Manichaeans (371). After the defeat of the Arians by the second Œcumenical Council, Theodosius the Great enforced uniformity of belief by legal penalties in fifteen edicts between 381 and 394. Honorius (408), Arcadius, the younger Theodosius, and Justinian (529) followed in the same path. By these imperial enactments heretics, i.e. open dissenters from the imperial state-religion, were deprived of all public offices, of the right of public worship, of receiving or bequeathing properly, of making binding contracts; they were subjected to fines, banishment, corporeal punishment, and even death. See the Theos. Code, Book XVI. tit. V. De Haereticis. The first sentence of death by the sword for heresy was executed on Priscillian and six of his followers who held Manichaean opinions (385). The better feeling of Ambrose of Milan and Martin of Tours protested against this act, but in vain. Even the great and good St. Augustin, although he had himself been a heretic for nine years, defended the principle of religious persecution, on a false exegesis of Cogite eos intrare, Luke 14:23 (Ep. 93 ad Vinc.; Ep. 185 ad Bonif., Retract. II. 5.). Had he foreseen the crusade against the Albigenses and the horrors of the Spanish Inquisition, he would have retracted his dangerous opinion. A theocratic or Erastian state-church theory—whether Greek Catholic or Roman Catholic or Protestant—makes all offences against the church offences against the state, and requires their punishment with more or less severity according to the prevailing degree of zeal for orthodoxy and hatred of heresy. But in the overruling Providence of God which brings good out of every evil, the bloody persecution of heretics—one of the darkest chapters in church history—has produced the sweet fruit of religious liberty. See vol. III. 138–146.



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