Heresies and Heretics in the Early Church (section 1)

Early church fathers focused much energy on refuting heretical views that infiltrated the church. The majority of the Trinity quotes were written in response to heresy being taught within the church. A heresy is simply a doctrine that strays from the established Christian belief. A heretic is someone who adheres to and teaches this unorthodox doctrine. In the case of the early church, heresies were teachings that directly conflicted with established Christian doctrine that was taught by Jesus and the apostles and passed down to the early church fathers on vital issues, such as the deity of Christ, the nature of God, salvation by grace, etc.

We have seen that many of the early church fathers were taught directly by the apostles themselves. Barnabas was taught directly by Paul and he served with Paul on some of his missionary journeys. Though his writings are not considered scripture, they are powerful testimonies to the original doctrine of Christ and the meaning of the gospel. Those closest to the source are the most credible witnesses. We have seen that those who deny the deity of Christ (Jesus was fully God and fully man), and those who identify Jesus and the Father as the same person were the teachers of heresy. This was not accepted by the early church and this heresy was not allowed into the church until after Constantine became an Arian and used his political power to establish this rejected doctrine as a part of the church. The council of Nicaea rejected this heresy almost unanimously. The church’s position did not change from the time of the apostles until the heresy took root. It was political power alone that forced this into the church as an accepted doctrine.

Just as the early church fought against those who departed from historical Christianity, the battle in the church is the same today. Many heresies that began back in the 1st, 2nd, and 3rd centuries are making their resurgence today. Many false teachers claim to be reformers and accuse the Trinitarian belief as being heresy, when in fact, it is they who have departed from historic Christianity. There is a difference between traditional Christianity and historical Christianity. Tradition is subjective to personal preference and does not necessarily have its roots in scripture. Historical Christianity finds its roots in scripture and we have a historic trail of writings that reveal the truth about what the early church believed and what the apostles taught. In the previous section, we looked at the church father’s belief in who Jesus Christ was – His deity, His personhood, His eternal existence and the fact that He is of one substance with the Father and the Holy Spirit. Next we will look at the heresies that historically plagued the early church. From these heresies, it will be evident where many religious groups get their doctrine today. They do not take their root in scripture or historic Christianity; we find their roots in heresy.


Docetism was introduced on a large scale by Julius Cassianus. The movement goes farther back, but he is considered the founder of this belief system. Docetism teaches that Jesus' physical body was only an aberration or an illusion. This idea is a product of Gnostic philosophy. The Gnostics believed that matter is evil. Therefore, Jesus could not be God incarnate because a physical body could not be good. Docetism taught that a spiritual Christ entered into the human Jesus at his baptism and left when He was crucified. They believed that Jesus' main objective was to deliver us from the dominion of matter (which is evil). He could not come in the form of matter since matter was what He came to overcome. This heresy also denies the resurrection because Jesus' physical body would still be matter. There are some similar variations to this belief. The Gnostic ‘Gospel of Peter’ teaches Docetism. Two of the more popular teachers of this heresy were Cerinthus and Ebionites.

The church responds:

Some ignorantly deny him [Jesus], or rather have been denied by him, being the advocates of death rather than of the truth. These persons neither have the prophets persuaded, nor the law of Moses, nor the gospel even to this day, nor the sufferings we have individually endured. For they think also the same thing regarding us. For what does anyone profit me, if he commends me, but blasphemes my Lord, not confessing that he was [truly] possessed of a body? But he who does not acknowledge this, has in fact altogether denied him, ... inasmuch as they are unbelievers. – Ignatius


The Gnostics claim to have 'secret knowledge'. Gnosis means knowledge. The Gnostics are similar to the New Age movement today in the way that they have many varying beliefs but all are somewhat similar. The primary belief that all Gnostics can agree on is that matter is evil. Two schools of thought follow the 'matter is evil' philosophy. One group believed in abstaining from any physical pleasure because it was all evil. The other group believed in total indulgence because the body is evil and separate from the soul. Gnostics believe that the soul is divine, but fallen and entrapped in the physical world. The body becomes an imprisonment. Gnostics also believe that a god can emanate other gods. The child god is weaker than its parent. The god of this world, (Jehovah of the Old Testament) was evil. Some even teach that the serpent in the Garden of Eden was not the devil, but an emanation of a higher god than the creator of the world. The serpent was there to warn and save Adam and Even, not to deceive them. Charles Bigg states that there was “ ‘a long chain of divine creatures, each weaker than its parent,’ and we come at last 'to one, who, while powerful enough to create is silly enough not to see that creation is wrong.' This was the God of this world, the God of the Jews.”

Some Gnostics also taught that Jesus was an emanation and did not have a physical body. When he walked on the beach, his apostles saw no footprints. This heresy goes back to the time of the apostles and continues throughout history. On many occasions we see the church challenging the Gnostics and there are many interesting quotes. Ignatius called them the forerunners of the dragon in Revelation and doctrines of demons. The Apostle John also addresses Gnostic doctrine in 1 John 4:

 1 Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits, whether they are of God; because many false prophets have gone out into the world.
 2 By this you know the Spirit of God: Every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is of God,
 3 and every spirit that does not confess that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is not of God. And this is the spirit of the Antichrist, which you have heard was coming, and is now already in the world.

Some of the more prominent Gnostic teachers in the time of the early church were Basilides, Saturninus, and Valentinus.


Nicolaitans are first found in the book of Revelation. They called themselves apostles but John said they were found to be liars. They based their authority from their leader Nicolaus. Since Nicolaus was ordained by the apostles as a deacon. His followers believed that they had authority from the apostles. They followed their leaders without question. They believed in finding knowledge through complete unrestraint. Sexual immorality was their primary focus. They claimed that sins committed in the body did not affect the spirit. I would also like to note that the origin of the Nicolaitans is in dispute. Some of the claims of his followers conflicts with the testimonies of those who knew Nicolas. It is possible that this religion was fashioned by leaders who only used Nicolas’ name to gain authority and may have had nothing to do with Nicolas directly.

The church responds:

Not only does the book of Revelation condemn the Nicolaitans, but their practices are condemned throughout the Old and New Testaments. Look at 1 Corinthians 3

 16 Do you not know that you are the temple of God and that the Spirit of God dwells in you?
 17 If anyone defiles the temple of God, God will destroy him. For the temple of God is holy, which temple you are.

Chapter 6:

 18 Flee sexual immorality. Every sin that a man does is outside the body, but he who commits sexual immorality sins against his own body.
 19 Or do you not know that your body is the temple of the Holy Spirit who is in you, whom you have from God, and you are not your own?


This is also called Modalism or the Sabellian heresy. Noetus of Smyrna first proposed this doctrine at the end of the second century, beginning of the third century. Modalistic Monarchian doctrine was accepted and popularized by Sabellius at the beginning of the third century. Sabellius was excommunicated in Rome for this teaching. Modalism teaches that the Trinity is one God revealed in one person or mode. The Father is the Son, is the Holy Spirit. They are all different temporary modes of the same God. Modalism/Monarchian doctrine usually did not deny the deity of Christ; instead they claim that the Son is the Father, not the eternal Son as part of historic Christianity.

Many church fathers wrote detailed responses against this doctrine (as we saw in the previous section). One term coined for those who held this heresy was 'Patripassianists' because they taught that the Father suffered on the cross. Other sects teach that Jesus was only a man who received power from God. Noetus, Praxeas, and Sabellius were the prominent teachers of this heresy.

The church responds:

Tertullian criticized this view in his theological argument against Praxeas:

“We define that there are two, the Father and the Son, and three with the Holy Spirit, and this number is made by the pattern of salvation...[which] brings about unity in trinity, interrelating the three, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. They are of one substance and power, because there is one God from whom these degrees, forms and kinds devolve in the name of Father, Son and Holy Spirit.” (Against Praxeas p. 156-7).


This heresy is also known as Dynamic Monarchian. At its inception, this heresy was never widely accepted, however, today it has found a home in New Age influenced churches. This view believes in God and believes that Jesus was just a man indwelled by 'the Christ Spirit'. Jesus became the Christ at his baptism when he received this Christ Spirit or Christ Mind. They used (and still use) Trinitarian terminology, but the meanings are not based in historic Christianity.


Montanus was a Phyrgian Christian who began a new 'prophetic' movement some time after 275 AD. He traveled with his disciples, Priscilla and Maximilla who he called prophetesses. Montanus claimed to be the mouthpiece of God. He separated himself from historic Christianity through is views of spiritual gifts. He believed in prophetic utterance and this soon gave way to new revelations. This sect claimed to have its revelations delivered directly from the Holy Spirit. This group called themselves 'The New Prophecy', but church writers referred to them as 'The Phyrgian Heresy'. Another practice that the church opposed was its use of ecstatic, semiconscious states in its religious practices. This is similar to the ‘falling out’ experienced by those ‘slain in the Spirit’ today.

The church responds:

Church leaders wrote critically against this group and pointed out that their traditions were not a part of historic Christianity:

“Beginning, indeed, with a designed ignorance, and terminating, as before said, in involuntary madness. They will never be able to show that any of the Old or any of the New Testament, were thus violently agitated and carried away in spirit. Neither will they be able to boast that Agabus, or Judas, or Silas, or the daughters of Philip, or Ammias in Philadelphia, or Quadratus, or others that do not belong the them, ever acted in this way.”


Arius was a priest under the bishop Alexander. He was excommunicated for his teachings that claimed that Jesus was a created being. Arius adamantly rejected the use of the term ‘homoousios’ (of the same substance) as the identity of Jesus in relationship with the Father. He denied the Trinity because he believed that if Jesus is begotten, he must be a created being and capable of falling from grace. He also reasoned that if Jesus was a created being, he could not be God.

After Arius was excommunicated, he wrote jingles and set them to music to teach his doctrine and he launched a letter campaign to persuade others to his point of view. Arius’ friend Eusibius was also a friend of Constantine, Emperor of Rome. He persuaded Constantine defend Arius. Constantine sent letters to Athanasius, the advisor to Alexander, the bishop who excommunicated Arius urging for harmony on this issue. Because the deity of Christ is a foundational issue to historical Christianity, harmony was not achieved. Constantine then called for the first officially sanctioned council of Churches in Rome. Arianism was not a popular teaching in the western churches in Rome, therefore only 10 bishops responded and attended the council. In the east, where Arius was gaining popularity, this heresy was a big concern, therefore over 300 eastern bishops attended.

After a heated debate, the vote was almost unanimous against this heresy and the church officially adopted a creed to state its belief on the deity of Christ. Included were the word ‘homoousios’, affirming that Jesus was of the same substance as the Father, yet separate in personhood. Only two bishops voted in favor of Arius. One was his friend Eusibius. Contrary to popular misconception, Constantine did not have a vote, nor did he participate in the arguments for or against the Trinity.

The almost unanimous vote was soon overturned when Constantine used his political power within the church. After the council of Nicaea, Constantine converted to Arianism. Soon after, anyone who opposed the Arian doctrine was exiled. One of the exiles was the bishop Alexander who excommunicated Arius. It is commonly taught that Constantine instituted the Trinity doctrine into the church. History reveals that the opposite is true. Constantine was baptized as an Arian. The Arians were anti-Trinitarians. The change in the church was not as the result of the Council of Nicaea. At the council, the historic position of the church was affirmed and written into a creed. It was after this council that historic Christianity was exiled and replaced with the Arian heresy.

There were many other heresies and schisms that plagued the church. Many of these gave birth to religious beliefs that continue today. In the last part of this section I want to address a few of those who hold these beliefs.

Eddie Snipes
Exchanged Life Outreach

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