This article is the sixth in a series by our deacon-candidate Randy King. To read the previous articles, check out the April, June, July, August, and November 2018 issues of our newsletter.
The Candidate’s Corner
by Randy King
On the Defeat of Early Heresies
Brothers and Sisters of St. Luke’s,
It has been a long time since the last article in my Church Fathers series—too long. I hope that I’ll be able to submit articles more frequently from here on out, if my studies permit it. By the way, I have reached the mid-way point in my Master of Arts of Pastoral Studies program, the academic portion of my preparation for the Permanent Diaconate. Two years down, two to go! Please continue to pray for me.
As you might recall, my first substantive installment in my exploration of the Church Fathers—the bishops, priests, deacons, monastics, theologians, and others who faithfully formed our Church from the time of the Apostles up to around AD 750—detailed the lives and works of the earliest of the Church Fathers, known as the Apostolic Fathers. My second substantive installment was about some of the major heresies of the early Church, up to about AD 325. This installment is about how the Church Fathers faithfully defended against those early heresies, and how doctrine was codified to capture orthodoxy, “right teaching.” This installment will conclude with a short discussion of the first major ecumenical council of the Church at Nicaea.
Let me first remind you why it is important to study these early Church Fathers. For one, they were the closest Christians to the time of Christ, just beyond the Apostles, and they withstood persecution and heresy to develop the basics of Christian doctrine, a rich deposit of faith forming a large portion of the Magisterium on which we stand firm today. Their stories are fascinating and inspirational.
To catch us up, I’ll give a very short summary of the most prominent heresies facing the Church up to the Council of Nicaea:
Gnosticism-A number of widely diverse movements, sects, and philosophical systems active in the earliest days of the Church. Its emphasis was on a supposed secret, mystical knowledge possessed by a Christian elite. Generally Gnostics denied the human nature of Jesus, believing that Jesus was meant to be wholly spiritual and that the human body was a prison for the spiritual beings we were meant to be.
Docetism-A Gnostic strain which believed Jesus only seemed to become man and suffer and die, but was really a true spirit with no human body, so he suffered no pain on the cross.
Marcionism– Marcion, a Gnostic adherent, believed Christianity should be a complete rejection of Judaism and the Israelite God and that Jews captured Christ as flesh when he was meant to be spirit, a cause of the alternate God of Judaism—a different God from the Christian God.
Arianism-The first of major heresies to arise after Emperor Constantine legalized Christianity, and one of the most pernicious is Christian history, Arius denied Jesus was co-equal or co-eternal with Father, positing there was a time when the Son was not, and so was created and not totally divine.
Now that we’ve refreshed ourselves with the nature of these heresies, some of which overemphasized Jesus’ spirituality and some of which overemphasized his humanity: How were these heresies defeated?
Gnosticism, Docetism and Marcionism: These early heresies, which claimed that Jesus was fully spiritual, were condemned by early Church Fathers such as St Ignatius of Antioch, St. Polycarp of Smyrna, St. Irenaeus of Lyon, and Tertullian of Carthage. In their writings against these earliest of heresies, the Fathers emphasized the human qualities that were evident in Christ during his life, if one read the Gospels properly: His human birth, His time as a young boy in the Temple in Jerusalem, and His painful, torturous death. These early saints successfully claimed Christ was incarnate while also teaching rightly of Jesus as the Word and the Son in His divine state. These Fathers produced invaluable works, such as Irenaeus’ “On the Detection and Overthrow of the So-Called Gnosis,” the ultimate exposition against Gnostic falsehoods and solid revealer of the Truths found in the Gospels; and multiple writings from Tertullian found in the Codex Agobardinus which codified early thoughts on Trinitarian doctrine. Works are one thing, but words and action are another. Famously, St. Polycarp, the Bishop of Smyrna, at one point met the heretic Marcion in Rome. Marcion asked him, “Do you know who I am?” Without hesitation Polycarp answered “I know you, first-born of Satan.” It is clear that the Church Fathers were passionate about the Gospel, to the point of death. [The persecutions and martyrdoms of this age will be the topic of a future article.]
Arianism: This bold challenge of Jesus’ divine status was not quite so easily put down as earlier heresies. Arian claims came at a time when the Christian church has just gained legal status in the Roman Empire. With freedom also came freedom of thought to challenge the truth that had been handed down, bishop to bishop, priest to priest, through the first three centuries of the Church, through oral tradition and writings of the Fathers. These writings of the Fathers made clear that Jesus was truly God, begotten of the Father before all worlds. Arius’ heresy claimed otherwise, and it was widely believed. Many bishops and political leaders lined up on either side of the controversy, primarily with Arius on one side and Church Fathers like St. Athanasius on the orthodox side. Finally the controversy reached a crisis, and Emperor Constantine called a Council to solve the doctrinal issue.
First Council of Nicaea (325 AD): Bishop Alexander of Alexandria and his deacon Athanasius argued favorably for the orthodox position of the Church. The Council affirmed that both Father and Son existed always together—eternally, coequally, and consubstantially, and codified this affirmation in the Nicene Creed. The status of the Spirit would have to wait for Constantinople, where the Nicene Creed would be modified into the form we use today (which, actually, should properly be called the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed). As a result of Arius’ beliefs being found to be anathema to the Church, he and two of his bishops who refused to recant their beliefs were deposed and exiled.
[A really cool note: At the Council, when Arius stood to make his argument, one Bishop in attendance, St. Nicholas of Myra, was so infuriated that he either slapped or punched Arius. Yes, this is Santa Claus—punching heretics!]
[A not so cool note: The Arian controversy continued for centuries, long after Arius’ death—his death is a story so unsettling that I’ll leave you to research on your own time—preferably before you eat lunch.]
This article only scratches the surface of this rich time in the life of the Church and the faithful Fathers who captured doctrine, defended the orthodox beliefs of the Church, and very often died in their zeal to spread the Gospel. Before we completely leave the Fathers of the pre-Nicene period, my next article will discuss the early persecutions of the Church before it was legalized in AD 313.
I hope you are still enjoying these small snapshots into this very rich time in the life of the Church, and I hope you are encouraged in your free time to take deep dives into these topics. You’ll find our faith in its most pure form, in a time when faith was life or death and little else was of concern in the daily lives of the faithful. They knew then, as we should know now, that the Truth of the Gospel must prevail, and that if we lose the Gospel we lose much more than our earthly lives—we lose life everlasting…
The Church Fathers Rock!
God bless each of you,
Never Deny, Seldom Affirm, Always Distinguish
St. Thomas Aquinas