Church after Constantine, 2a: The Late Antique Targets

I realised that even a brief mention of all the different persons/groups targeted by the Church (whether imperial or mediaeval) from the late fourth century to the end of the Middle Ages would be too large a task, and even truncated, too long for a single post. So here I give you the groups targeted by the official Church hierarchies of Late Antiquity.

Hopefully I will show that, while the use of force in any of these cases is not to be approved, these groups are not the True Church gone Underground after Constantine. Indeed, many of these groups sought the approval of the Late Antique Church structures.

  • Priscillianists. Priscillian of Avila has the dubious distinction of being the first person executed on grounds of heresy in 385 under the usurper Magnus Maximus in Gaul. As with many ‘heretics’, the theory currently making its rounds is that Priscillian wasn’t actually a heretic but was upsetting the current order in Gallaecia (northwest Spain), so his opponents wanted him removed, and that all later ‘Priscillianists’ are guilty of the same thing. Nonetheless, if Priscillian were a Priscillianist, he would have been worthy of the Church’s censure, if not execution, since he is alleged to have taught, following the succinct description of the Catholic Encyclopedia:

The foundation of the doctrines of the Priscillianists was Gnostic-Manichaean Dualism, a belief in the existence of two kingdoms, one of Light and one of Darkness. Angels and the souls of men were said to be severed from the substance of the Deity. Human souls were intended to conquer the Kingdom of Darkness, but fell and were imprisoned in material bodies. Thus both kingdoms were represented in man, and hence a conflict symbolized on the side of Light by the Twelve Patriarchs, heavenly spirits, who corresponded to certain of man’s powers, and, on the side of Darkness, by the Signs of the Zodiac, the symbols of matter and the lower kingdom. The salvation of man consists in liberation from the domination of matter. The twelve heavenly spirits having failed to accomplish their release, the Saviour came in a heavenly body which appeared to be like that of other men, and through His doctrine and His apparent death released the souls of the men from the influence of the material.

  • Pelagians (on whom I’ve previously blogged here). Once again, we have here a group whose leader may not have been a heretic at all. Nevertheless, if you read Julian of Eclanum, some of his followers seem to have been. Unlike Priscillian, Pelagius was not killed, nor were his followers. They were, rather, stripped of holy orders and excommunicated. This is not violence or force but, rather, church discipline. What Pelagius and his followers were condemned for (regardless of what any individual actually believed) is succinctly put by Pope Leo I (r. 440-461; my trans.):

And since they pretend to reject and put aside all their definitions to help them sneak in, they seize on this with all their art of deceit, unless they are understood, that the grace of God is felt to be given according to the merits of the recipients. Which, of course—unless it were given gratis—is not grace, but payment and recompense for merits: as the blessed Apostle says, ‘You were saved by grace through faith, and this is not from yourselves but it is the gift of God, not from works, lest perhaps some be exalted. For we are his handiwork, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God has prepared that we may walk in them.’ (Eph. 2:8-10) And so every bestowal of good works is a divine preparation: because no one is justified by virtue before grace, which is the beginning of justice, the fount of good things, and the origin of merits for one and all. But by these men, therefore, it is said to be anticipated by that innate industry so that which was clear by its own zeal before grace, seems not harmed by any wound of original sin; and it is false which Truth said, ‘For the Son of Man came to seek out and to save that which had perished.’ (Luke 19:10) (Leo, Ep. 1.3)

  • Manichees. Manichaeism is the third big heretical group attacked in the western Church. Interestingly enough, it should not class as a heresy at all, but, rather, a distinct religion some of whose members also self-identified as Christians. This is the religion of which Augustine of Hippo was a member before converting to Platonism and, ultimately, catholic Christianity. It traces its roots to a prophet named Mani (Manichaeus in Latin) who believed himself Christianity’s promised Paraclete, and combined various elements of Persian, Graeco-Roman, and Christian religion into his religious philosophy. It was a sect with various degrees and levels of knowledge, and only those in the highest orders were bound to be saved. Like Priscillianism, it is a dualistic philosophy in which the good god created spirit but his rival created matter, and the two are interlocked in a great contest. They were generally only expelled from church communion for most of their history, although Pope Leo I (r. 440-461) tried to drive them out of the city of Rome itself.
  • Nestorians. Nestorius was Archbishop of Constantinople in the late 420s. He may not have been Nestorian, but he said things that sounded Nestorian. The teaching named after him was the idea that two distinct persons inhabit the single body of Jesus Christ. This causes a lot of problems, because the humanity is, then, not fully taken up by the divinity. In the nitty-gritty of daily theological life, I personally wonder how many so-called ‘Nestorians’ were really that Nestorian. They were expelled from the Roman Empire under Zeno I (r. 474-491) and founded the Church of the East, which stretches from the ancient Persian Empire into India, and was even active for a while in China, where a former monastery of theirs displays texts written in both Syriac and Chinese script. The successors to the ‘Nestorians’ of the fifth century tend to be called ‘Dyophysites’ these days, although I think that confuses them with Chalcedonian catholic Christianity (Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, most Protestant groups).
  • Mono/miaphysites. This group believes in one nature of God the Word incarnate. The slogan is taken from Cyril of Alexandria in reaction to the Council of Chalcedon that proclaimed Christ as existing in two natures. For a long time they fought with the Chalcedonians over which theology would win out as the theology of the Church within the Empire (although only in the East; the West was always Chalcedonian, one of the deciding factors). The final, irreparable rupture, despite many later attempts at reconciliation, occured in the long reign of Emperor Justinian I (r. 527-565) during which they established a separate hierarchy parallel to that of the imperial, catholic church. Both sides in this debate engaged one another with both official and mob violence, although very rarely were persons actually killed; usually they suffered confiscation of property or expulsion from monasteries. They are so close to catholic teaching that I wonder if they can be properly called heretics; their successors form the Coptic Church, the Syrian Orthodox Church, and the Armenian Apostolic Church.
  • Origenists. Two Origenist Controversies erupted in the ancient church, both of them focussing upon monastic theology and practice. The first was in the late 300s/early 400s, the second in the mid-500s. Amongst the victims of the various politicking persons of the First Origenist Controversy was John Chrysostom. The teachings condemned in the Second Origenist Controversy can be found here. They focus upon the pre-existence of souls and a subordinationist Christology that makes Jesus less than fully, truly God. This system, drawn largely from the teachings of Evagrius, not Origen, believes that all souls used to be united together in the Monad, but Movement made them fall to different degrees, and someday they shall all return. The soul of Jesus is the only soul that did not fall. You can see why, even if few monks really believed this in full, an accusation of being Origenist was a potent thing. Most so-called ‘Origenists’ were either expelled from their monasteries or removed from the position of Abbot.
  • The Iconoclastic Controversy, East and West (700s-800s). Most people who believe that the True Church went Underground and all we need to do to find it is follow the trail of blood would point to the iconoclasts as being the poor, persecuted True Believers. However, for much of the controversy as it raged for more than a century, the iconodules were the ones under censure by the official church or the secular authorities of the Christian government. No official violence was used here, mostly the usual strings of anathemas, confiscations of ecclesiastical property, and removal from church offices. In the end, the position adopted was in favour of images. One thing to note is that our earliest Christian church, from before 250 at Dura Europas in Syria, is covered in images as are the Roman catacombs (fourth century?) and a fourth-century sanctuary in Britain. So images in Christian places of worship pre-date the eighth- and ninth-century controversy by a long shot, long  before people were getting kicked out of their churches for it. Oh, and in the West, the iconodule popes painted frescoes and put up mosaics in defiance of iconoclastic kings.

I have no doubt there are ancient, post-Constantinian heresies I’ve neglected. But the main point, I hope, is clear. The Church, even when she got the power of the government to help her out, was not persecuting people because they believed in some long-lost apostolic truth but because they believed things that modern evangelicals would also have felt to be worthy of censure.

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