Revelation Introduction-Part Two
Author: Terry Dashner, Sr. Pastor, Faith Fellowship Church in Broken Arrow, OK 74012
The Initial Heresies and Heretics
Beginning with the apostle Paul, the leaders of the early church had to address wrong ideas that threatened the integrity of the gospel message. One of the first, docetism, was mentioned in our discussion of the first century. Docetic, which comes from the Greek word meaning "to appear." Those who proposed this heresy maintained that Jesus really did not possess, or inhabit a physical body, but only "appeared" to have a body. The basis of docetism is that Jesus was truly a spiritual being, and as such, could not have had a true body.
There are aspects of the New Testament that suggest docetism was already a problem in the first century. Some scholars believe John's gospel contains some anti-docetic texts, for example in chapter 21 where Jesus eats fish with disciples. It seems that 1 John may have been written to combat this heresy, "...every spirit that acknowledges Jesus Christ come in the flesh belongs to God." 1 John 4:2
Ignatius of Antioch is clearly writing against docetics when he says, "He was then truly born, truly grew up, truly ate and drank, was truly crucified, and died, and rose again." Philippians 3
Around the year 85 Marcion was born, the son of a bishop. He traveled around the world as a merchant and moved to Rome around 135 where he became known in the church and began to teach.
Marcion observed the vast differences between the God represented in the Old Testament and the God of Jesus in the NT. His answer was to reject the God of the OT, seeing him as the evil craftsman (gk. demiurge) creator of an evil world. Marcion constructed a list that represents the first recorded listing of NT texts, basically his personal canon - he excluded the entire OT, and included only Paul's letters and Luke's gospel. He also excluded a few parts of Paul's letters - anything where Paul refers to the OT in a positive way (Marcion claimed these had been tampered with by Jews) and references to hell and/or judgment (for example 2 Thess 1:6-8). It is this unorthodox canon that leads the church fathers to begin naming the "accepted" documents.
Marcion's influence was significant enough for his teaching to be argued against by several church fathers including Justin, Irenaeus, Clement of Alexandria, Origen, and Tertullian. He worked hard as an evangelist and the Marcionite churches spread throughout the Roman Empire. Marcionite churches held strong until the beginning of the fourth century.
Sometime in the 160's on the borders of Mysia (western Turkey) a believer named Montanus broke onto the scene. He testified that he had experienced an ecstatic visitation of the Paraclete (the Holy Spirit) and, along with two women (Maximilla and Priscilla), had the ability to deliver prophetic messages from God.
The Montanist message, whether spoken or delivered in ecstatic utterance, consisted of: the promise (or warning) of the imminent return of Jesus and the apocalyptic end of the world, a new outpouring of the Spirit announcing this message, and an encouragement to embrace persecution and martyrdom. The church had not discouraged these messages up to this point, and indeed, did not immediately disagree with Montanus. Unfortunately, other messages existed behind these to form a three-part subtext. First, two of the primary characters were women. There are some modern scholars who seize upon this as evidence for a patriarchical stronghold that would deny any leadership to women. There are good arguments against this position, but the early church was a male dominated movement and women certainly did not have equal access to leadership roles. Another subtext was the over-zealous approach to martyrdom. We have already covered the problems with what can be called "the cult of the martyrs." It is highly likely that Montanists were among the martyrs in the famous persecution scene of Lyons in the year 177. Probably the most problematic aspect of the Montanists was the view that their prophecies carried the authority of the gospels, and of apostolic teaching. Montanus and his two prophetesses did not see themselves in need of the authority of the church. The leading bishops did, however, prevail even after Tertullian defected from the church and joined the Montanists. Around 179 AD Maximilla complained of the treatment she had received, "I am driven as a wolf from the sheep. I am not a wolf. I am word, spirit and power." (Eusebius, History V.16.17)
In the end, Montanism was rejected more for being fanatical than for being heretical. David Wright concludes his study on Montanism by saying, "The reaction against Montanism brought upon the church impoverishment more detrimental than the upset caused by the unbalanced excesses of the New Prophecy." (Wright, David, "Why Were the Montanists Condemned?", Themelios 2:1, pp.15-22; also www.earlychurch.org.uk/article_montanists_wright.html)
In the early second century a strange movement began to emerge, more strongly concentrated in Egypt, but with pockets of activity throughout the Roman Empire. Gnosticism was a curious synthesis of Jewish apocalypticism, Platonism, strains of pagan religions, and early Christianity. There are some indications of an early form of gnostic thought in the NT, but nothing like what developed in the second century.
Similar to Marcion, basic Gnosticism consisted of an extreme dualism, drawing a distinction between the body and the spirit realm. The "demiurge" was the evil creator of the physical universe, humans were bound in their "evil" physical body, and could only be released from the confines of that body through the gaining of gnosis, or divine knowledge. The seven visible heavenly bodies (Sun, Moon, Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn) gave rise to a belief in eight heavenly realms. Plato had written about the concept of pre-existent souls in a state of perfection prior to taking on a mortal body on the earth. When the soul is released from the prison of the body it ascends back to the heavenly realm where it is reunited with the realm of ideas. The soul in the Gnostic system must ascend through these heavenly realms in the quest to return to a state of perfection. Along the way the soul must pass guardians of each level; typically to pass into the next stage, or heavenly realm, the soul must recite some of the heavenly gnosis learned during the earthly trek. The eighth level is the place of perfection, the ultimate goal for every soul.
Gnosticism in the second century was not a unified movement. Each group tended to gravitate around a single enlightened leader, and most groups were exclusive, seeing their particular set of dogma to be unique and essential. This lack of cohesiveness between Gnostic sects makes it difficult to quickly summarize the gnostic system beyond the above overview.
The second century brought with it a steady growth of Gentile Christianity, but not without opponents. We have seen the rise of various heresies, opposition marked by a twisting of "apostolic teaching." This led the early Christian leadership to further develop creeds and formulas as a way to solidify "orthodox" positions. One must remember that in the early second century the New Testament had not come fully into form – the writings of the apostolic successors was held in high esteem. The growth of the church into something of a "grassroots" movement also brought critics like Lucian (a writer), Galen (a physician) and Celsus (a philosopher). Celsus is the most well-known early critic of Christianity. His attack must have had some influence - we know his writing through Origin's argument against him, Contra Celsum, written nearly 100 years later. The following arguments, voiced by Celsus, were commonly used against Christianity:
- Jesus could not have been divine
- with secret teachings, Christianity is suspicious (Eucharist, the Holy Spirit, etc.)
- how can God be "eternal" and be known?
It is important to understand that intellectual criticism of the Christian faith and doctrine was not uncommon in the second century. This is important for many reasons, but let me point out two:
1. Christianity has always had critics. What we see and hear against the faith is not new – believers before us had to find answers against critics and so does the contemporary church.
2. The answers we find to the objections clearly indicate that the primary doctrines of the faith were well established before the NT took its final form. Those who argue that the faith being taught in the 21st century is somehow different from what the earliest believers held is simply not true. The virgin birth, the physical resurrection, the divinity of Jesus – we find the same cardinal doctrines of faith in early second century Christianity.
This consistent criticism of the faith gave rise to another special group of Christian writers, the Apologists. These writers argued for the faith, and in the process allowed Christians for all ages to know what the second century church believed. The first two men (Justin Martyr and Irenaeus of Lyons) are clearly second century; the influence of the two other men (Tertullian and Clement of Alexandria) was mainly felt in the third century and beyond, but they are both considered apologists, therefore I will introduce them as such with a brief discussion of their influence in this area. These apologists have already briefly appeared in other sections of CH101 and continue to come up (for example in the next section on the New Testament canon).
Justin Martyr (cir. 100-165)
Justin was an ardent student of philosophy (mainly Stoicism and Platonism) and taught philosophy. In his early thirties he met an elderly man on a seashore who impressed upon Justin the trustworthiness of the gospel. Justin investigated the faith and became convinced. He continued to wear his philosopher's gown and teach philosophy, but now advocating the only true philosophy to be Christianity.
Justin is mainly known through his writings:
The Apologies – a set of discourses propounding the supremacy of the Christian faith. The first Apology is addressed to the emperor Antoninus Pius (ruled 138-161) and to his son, Marcus Aurelius (ruled 161-180), who himself was something of a philosopher. Justin appeals to these emperors and their sense of decency, arguing against the persecution directed at Christians.
Dialogue with Trypho – a treatise again proposing the primacy of the Christian faith, but with more emphasis on how the followers of Jesus represent the “new” people of God. Trypho was an educated Jew and also a student of philosophy.
Justin is often criticized for leaning too heavily on his Greek philosophy, but he must have stood out as an intellectual giant among his peers and perhaps dulled some of the sharp attacks coming from the critics of the faith.
Justin is also quite important for the role his writings play in the development of the NT canon. He quotes from, or alludes to, each of the four gospels and to many of Paul's letters. Many early fathers cite Justin as an important early Christian voice. He was arrested and beheaded in Rome and thus receives his name as Justin Martyr.
Irenaeus of Lyons (cir. 135-202)
Irenaeus, a bishop in Gaul sometime in the latter half of the second century is mainly known for his work Against Heresies circa 175-185. The title is actually Refutation and Overthrow of Knowledge, falsely so-called - thus the shorter title. This work is a summary and brief history of all the heresies known by Irenaeus, focusing on Gnosticism. Indeed, Gnosticism was the dominant heresy of that time, even overshadowing the orthodox faith in the Egyptian region to some extent.
We learn from the author himself that he grew up in the faith and actually sat at the feet of Polycarp as a young boy (A.H. III.3,4).
What begins as a refutation of gnostic groups becomes something of a history of the Christian church up until his day. In fact, Eusebius leans upon Irenaeus to a great degree in his church history volume written 200 years later. Irenaeus gives us many details about Christianity during this period that might have otherwise been lost. For example, he recounts the succession of bishops in Rome from Peter and Paul to his day. This is done to combat a claim being made by several heretical leaders that they were in the rightful lineage of the apostles. He gives us the basis for a creed recited during his day (A.H. III.4,2). He cites passages from the four canonical gospels and from almost every other NT book.
Many scholars during the early years of the 20th century attacked Irenaeus and his description of these gnostic groups, accusing him of exaggeration in order to make the Gnostics look far worse. The discovery of Nag Hammadi in 1945 of several gnostic writings dated from the second century (the Nag Hammadi Library) have proven that Irenaeus was, in fact, not making anything up, nor was he exaggerating.
Irenaeus served as the bishop of Lyons until 202 when it is thought he may have died during the persecution under Emperor Severus.
Tertullian (cir. 155–230)
It is not known exactly when Tertullian was born, but he was born in Carthage, North Africa, the son of a Roman centurion and the Empire. He was trained in law and apparently served as a jurist in Rome for a while. We do not know how he came to faith, but he does seem to indicate in some of his writings that he was not always in the faith.
He is known only for his writings, which are many. Tertullian was a prolific writer and is the first of the Latin Fathers – the first Christian writer to write in Latin. His biblical quotations come from a Latin bible as well. He is a master of the written word and penned some works specifically for the general educated public in defense of Christian faith. Some were written as open letters to the authorities arguing (as did Justin) against the persecution of Christians in the empire. His writings are terse, direct, and always attacking – as he probably argued in courtrooms, his aim is always to win the battle of the argument.
Tertullian had a fiery temperament and that contributed to some very strong disagreements with others in church leadership. The most serious issue is known “second repentance.” Basically the church believed that after your initial repentance, baptism, and entrance into the family of faith you could not be formally allowed re-admittance to the church if you commit a “sin unto death.” Typically three sins were considered mortal sins: adultery, fornication, and apostasy (denouncing Christ during persecution).
During some of the more heated persecutions of the second century the faith of many believers failed, or “lapsed.” After the persecution calmed bishops found themselves with numbers of the lapsed desiring forgiveness and admission to the church. This number could be in the dozens in the major cities. As in any age, some bishops were sterner than others – some wanted to grant mercy to these penitent sinners. Others wanted the church to hold to a high standard and demanded that lapsed believers could not be forgiven. Tertullian falls into the rigorous camp, but the issue is not a simple one – he mainly felt that to go easy on an adulterer and to then hold someone at arm’s length whose faith held failed under torture was just wrong. We cannot go further into this issue, but you can read a paper on Second Repentance to get a better explanation and understanding.
Clement of Alexandria (cir. 150-215)
The final significant second century apologist is Clement of Alexandria. It is difficult to overestimate the influence of Clement. Although his influence is not focused in the second century, he certainly served as an apologist.
Clement's first major work is titled “Exhortation to the Greeks” and is basically a call to the educated Greco-Roman society to hear the gospel of Jesus. Many scholars say this is Clement's most graceful piece of writing. This “Exhortation” is filled with numerous citations from the most popular Greek writers, each citation being used to prove Clement's underlying arguments. The document reads like an anthology of Greek literature, and it is clear that Clement is not new to this literature. He is an educated man and his use of Greek is of a high quality.
His other significant apologetic is “Miscellanies,” a strange work that covers a multitude of topics without any apparently clear outline. What is clear in this work is that Clement is attacking the various Gnostic leaders who had made an impact in second century Egypt, chiefly Basilides and Valentinus (Gnosticism was briefly covered in another chapter). He names these men throughout this work, citing texts from their writings and arguing against them. “Excerpts from Theodotus” is another work attributed to Clement. In this work Clement takes large portions of Theodotus, a teacher of Valentinian gnosticism, and argues against this gnostic teaching.
Although Clement is clearly on the offensive against gnosticism, it is also clear that some of his views are not consistent with other early writers. This is something of a problem with Clement of Alexandria. He represents a time in the development of Egyptian Christianity when the church was recovering from what appears to have been a 50-60 year period when gnosticism was the dominant force. Nonetheless, Clement of Alexandria certainly represents the development in early Christianity when highly educated Christian leaders presented a reasoned defense of the faith.