The Early Church by James Orr


The external conflict of the Church in this period was with paganism. Its internal conflicts were with Gnosticism and Montanism. The conflict with Gnosticism was a powerful force in the development of theology; the conflict with Montanism did much to strengthen the lines of ecclesiastical authority. But the apologists also, from the nature of their task, had to state and defend Christian doctrines. They are our first theologians. They form the link between the Apostolic Fathers, whose theology is as yet naive and unreflective, and the later Church teachers, with whom the construction of a system of Christian truth would become a distinct and conscious aim. See, for example, Origen. 

The Apologists as Theologians 

It is typical to speak of the apologists as teachers of a rational theology as they develop a doctrine of God, virtue, and immortality. This idea misses the distinctive essence of Christianity—this would imply that Christianity is related to this thinking only as revelation and supernatural confirmation. There is some cause for this judgment, but it is one-sided and defective. From the necessity of their position, the apologists dealt chiefly with the truths of what we may call "natural religion" -- the moral government of God, the creation of the world, judgment to come, a future state of rewards and punishments, etc. They sought to emphasize these in opposition to various audiences. They had to address pagan idolatry; the stoic philosophy of pantheism, the epicurean philosophy that there was no difference between differing religions; and the common belief in fate. If they gave these doctrines a rational dress, this is explained by their training and habits as philosophers, and by accommodation to the spirit of the age. It would have been out of place in reasoning with pagans to have discussed the interior doctrines of the Christian religion which the pagans did not know and did not care to address. 

The doctrines taught are Christian doctrines. The apologists do not resort to Greek and other speculations, and they treat their teaching in their Christian aspects and relationships. The morality also is the spiritual morality of the Gospel. The apologists, one and all, held strongly to the doctrine of the Trinity, and in this connection gave prominence to the doctrine of the Logos, the "Word", the Father's instrument in the creation of the world, who became incarnate in Jesus Christ. This too is Scriptural doctrine. It is to be noted, however, that, while holding Son and Spirit to be truly of the nature of God, they fell short in one important respect of the doctrine of the later creeds. Assuming in some sense an eternal distinction between the Logos and the Father, they yet seem to have believed that the coming forth of the Son (Spirit also) into distinct personal existence as the second "Person" of the Trinity was not eternal, but was immediately prior to creation. The Logos was held to be the source of all rational intelligence and wisdom in humans and what portions of truth heathen sages possessed were due to His presence in their minds. In Christ the whole Word was incarnate; hence in Him Christians have the full truth (Justin).

  The apologists are witnesses to Gospel facts. While most of the apologists confine themselves to the general "rational" truths mentioned above, Justin has something to say of the specific Christian doctrines. Man through disobedience has become the child of necessity and ignorance, and has fallen under the tyranny of the demons. Jesus by His sufferings and death has redeemed us from the curse, and obtained remission of sins for those who repent, believe, and keep His commandments. Forgiveness is bestowed in Baptism, which is spoken of as "regeneration". The sacramentarian idea is thus already well established. A mystical virtue, in like manner, attaches to the bread and wine of the Eucharist, which are no longer "common food and drink," but the flesh and blood of Jesus Christ, through which our own flesh and blood are nourished. Still it is true that Justin regards Christianity, in accordance with the temper of the time, too much as "a new philosophy" and "a new law." 

Gnosticism -- Its General Character

Gnosticism is the peculiar heresy of the second century. It is one of the most remarkable appearances of any age. It may be described generally as the fanciful product of the blending of certain Christian ideas -- particularly that of redemption through Christ -- with speculations and imaginings derived from a medley of sources (Greek, Jewish, Parsic, Oriental; philosophies, religions, theosophies, mysteries) in a period when the human mind was in a kind of ferment, and when opinions of every sort were jumbled together in an unimaginable jumble. It involves, as the name denotes, a claim to "knowledge" -- knowledge of a kind of which the ordinary believer was incapable, and in the possession of which "salvation" in the full sense consisted. 

The knowledge of which the Gnostic boasted related to the subjects ordinarily treated of in religious philosophy. Gnosticism, itself, was a subset of religious philosophy. Such questions as the relation of infinite and finite, the origin of the world and of evil, the cause, meaning, purpose and destiny of things, the reason of the difference in men's capacities and lots in life, the way of salvation, etc. Imagination ran riot in inventing solutions for these problems, and as the answers which would satisfy the Gnostic had no real relation to Christianity, and could not by any rational process of interpretation be deduced from Scripture, they had to be drawn from it by applying to the sacred text the method of allegory. 

It is difficult to give an intelligible account of systems so multiform and continually changing; and hardly any features can be named common to all systems. The following may serve as a general indication. At the head is the ultimate, nameless, unknowable Being, spoken of as the "Abyss.”  Forming a connecting chain between Him and the finite creation are the "aeons" (or "powers," "angels," etc.) proceeding from the highest Being by “emanation." These "aeons," taken together, form the "pleroma," or fullness of the Divine (His self-unfoldings). The origin of the world is generally explained by a fall or rupture in the "pleroma," or the descent of some lower or inferior "aeon." Matter is conceived of as inherently evil -- sometimes as independently existing. In all Gnostic systems  a distinction is made between the Supreme God and the "Demiurge" or author of this lower world. The Demiurge is regarded as an inferior, limited, imperfect Being, and is identified with the God of the Old Testament and of the Jews. The God of the Gospel revealed by Jesus Christ is, as a result, invariably contrasted with the God of creation and of the Old Testament. This might almost be said to be the hinge on which Gnosticism turns. Jesus Himself is conceived of either as a heavenly "aeon" who descends to earth, clothed with the appearance of a body -- a mirage-like body (docetism), or as an earthly Messiah, on whom the heavenly "aeon” descends at the Baptism, but leaves Him again at the Crucifixion. 

Redemption is through knowledge, and is possible in the full sense only to the "spiritual" part of mankind (these are the "Gnostics"). The rest are either "carnal," wholly incapable of salvation, or belong to an intermediate class called the "psychical," or "soulish ones” who have a modified benefit. 

In practical operation Gnosticism was sometimes ascetic (demeaning the body, forbidding marriage, etc.); sometimes, as an assertion of the superiority of the spirit to the flesh, it passed over into unrestrained licentiousness. 

The Gnostic Systems 

The beginnings of Gnosticism are already manifest in the New Testament (see the Colossian heresy; 1 Tim. 1. 20, "gnosis falsely so called " ; Rev. 2. 24; St. John's epistles). As known in Church history, we may distinguish the early gnostic systems, the semi-developed systems (Ophite, etc.), and finally the developed systems (Basilides, Yalentinus, Marcion). 

 At the head of gnostic teachers the Fathers always place Simon Magus, who claimed to be "the Power of God which is called Great " (first and chief of the emanations, Acts 8. 10), Simon had associated with him a female companion of low character (Helena), represented as the "power" next in rank to himself, from whom proceeded the makers of the world. The angels detained this "aeon" in the lower world, and Simon descended to redeem her. His disciple was Menander. 

A sect of Simonians lingered on till the third century. Among early Christian Gnostics a prominent place is given to Cerinthus, the contemporary of St. John. It is he of whom the story is told that St. John, seeing him one day in a bath at Ephesus, exclaimed:  "Let us fly, lest the bath should fall while Cerinthus, the enemy of the truth, is in it." He distinguishes between the lower, earthly Christ born of Joseph and Mary, and the higher, heavenly Christ who descended on Jesus at the Baptism, but left Him again before His death. 

 Carpocrates is the first of the openly licentious Gnostics. Christ in his system has no essential preeminence over others. Hence, in the Carpocratian worship, the image of Christ was placed alongside those of other philosophers (in the first historical mention of images). The duty of the Gnostic is to show his contempt for the rulers of the world by unbridled indulgence of the passions.  

The semi-developed Gnosis is chiefly represented by the remarkable group of systems known as Ophites, from ophis which is Greek for serpent. They derive this name from the honor paid to the "serpent" as the symbol of intelligence. The Creator of this world is an ignorant, imperfect Being (the "Son of Chaos "), who thinks himself the Supreme God. It is therefore a merit when the serpent (Gen. 3) persuades the first pair into disobedience of Him. The most characteristic of the multitude of sects bearing this name is the Cainites, who reversed all the ordinary standards of moral judgment, choosing as their heroes the persons whom the Bible condemned, such as Cain, men of Sodom, Esau, and Korah. The Syrian Gnosis was represented by Saturninus, said to be a disciple of Menander, whose system is marked by strong dualism and gloomy asceticism. He is reputed to be one of the founders of the Encratite heresy which condemned marriage, and counseled abstinence from meat. To this party Tatian fell away after the death of Justin, holding, it is said, with the other Gnostics, a series of "aeons," and a distinction between the Supreme God and the Demiurge. 

It is, however, in the developed Gnostic systems that we naturally see the movement in its perfection. The first great name here is Basilides, of Alexandria. He lived during the reign of Hadrian, A.D. 117-38. Basilides, with his son Isidore, taught a complex gnostic system. Basilides was a man of powerful speculative intellect. His first principle is a Being so abstract that thought cannot give Him a name. The world is continuously evolved from a pansperma or "seed of the world," in which all things were originally potentially contained. It is ruled by two great Archons, who must serve the designs of the Supreme. There are no "aeons," but the highest "light" descends through the successive spheres till it rests on Jesus of Nazareth. The process is complete when the Divine element of "sonship” is all drawn out and restored to God. Oblivion then falls on lower intelligences. Many fine sayings are attributed to Basilides, such as, "I will say anything rather than doubt the goodness of Providence." 

Valentinus, likewise an Alexandrian, taught in Rome during the reign of Antoninus, A.D. 138-61. His system is as imaginative and poetical as that of Basilides is speculative. It is a sort of poem of the exile of the soul. Sophia the lowest of the "aeons," burns with desire for the knowledge of the Father, and nearly loses her existence in seeking to obtain it. Harmony is only restored in the Pleroma through the creation of two new "aeons" who are Christ and the Holy Spirit. The expulsion of the product of this disturbance leads to a repetition of the tragedy in a lower world; and this, in turn, to the formation of our own world, in which, a third time, the drama of fall and redemption is enacted. The Redeemer here is "Jesus the Savior" -- an "aeon" produced by the Pleroma as a thank-offering to the Father for the restoration of their own harmony. He descends on the earthly Jesus, whose own body, however, is wrought of higher substance. 

Lastly we have the system of Marcion, of Pontus, who was a disciple of Cerdo. Marcion taught in Rome around A.D. 140- 155. He was later vigorously refuted by Tertullian. Marcion is properly classed among Gnostics, inasmuch as he makes an absolute distinction between the God of the Old Testament and the God of the New Testament, is dualistic, and ascribes to Christ only a seeming body. Otherwise his system is wholly unlike those of other Gnostics. He lays, like St. Paul, the stress, not on knowledge, but on faith. 

His system may be described as an overstrained Paulinism.  The Pauline contrasts of law and Gospel, sin and grace, works and faith, are strained till they break asunder, and become irreconcilable antagonisms. The God of the Old Testament (and of creation) is opposed to the God of the New Testament. Marcion describes them as the "just" God whose nature is ignorant, harsh, and rigorous and the "good" God, whose nature is wholly love. Marcion wrote a book on the Antitheses between the Old Testament and the New Testament, and drew up also a Canon of Scripture (Marcion's "Canon"), which had but one Gospel, which was a mutilated Luke, and ten epistles of St. Paul. In practice he was rigorously ascetic. Only water, e.g., was used in the Lord's Supper. 


  Montanism is another influence that lived powerfully in the Church from the middle of the second century. It is best explained as a reaction against the growing rigidity of Church forms, the increasing laxity in Church morals and discipline, and the dying out of the spontaneous element in Church life and worship. It had its origin in Phrygia, the population of which were said to have “naturally” a strong tendency to excitement and extravagance. 

The essence of the movement lay in its claim to be a new prophecy. Montanus gave himself out as a new organ of the Spirit. The Paraclete promised by the Savior had come in him. He was the founder of the new age or dispensation of the Spirit. With Montanus were associated two prophetesses -- Prisca, or Priscilla, and Maximilla. It was characteristic of the Montanist prophecy that it was delivered in trance or ecstasy.

One of the oracles of Montanus says, "Behold, the man is as a lyre, and I (the Spirit) sweep over him like a plectrum. The man sleeps and I wake." The content of the prophecy did not affect doctrine, but chiefly practice. The tendency of the sect was severely ascetic, and its view of Church discipline was of the strictest sort. For example, there was no forgiveness of mortal sin. Like most movements of the kind, it was strongly millenarian. The place was even named where the New Jerusalem was to descend -- the small village of Pepuza, in Phrygia. 

In its later form Montanism aimed more at being a simple movement of reform in the direction of stricter life and discipline. The antagonism between the Montanists and the Church party grew unsurprisingly very bitter. The Montanists called themselves "spirituals," and spoke of the Catholics as "psychicals." The latter denounced the new prophecy as Satanic delusion. Local synods were held which condemned the movement and excommunicated its adherents. Notwithstanding the opposition of the Church authorities, however, Montanism spread, and attracted a good deal of sympathy from earnest minds. In North Africa it must have obtained a strong hold. Tertullian of Carthage was its most distinguished convert (A.D. 202) -- indeed, its only great man. When, at a council in Iconium (c. A.D. 233), it was decided not to recognize Montanist baptism, the separation from the Church was complete. By Cyprian's time (A.D. 250) Montanism must have nearly died out in Carthage -- at least he never refers to it. 

Apocryphal Writings

 The second century was marked by the production, chiefly in Ebionitic and Gnostic circles, of a profusion of Apocryphal Gospels, Apocalypses, and similar works. Such were the Gospel of the Hebrews, the Gospel of the Egyptians, the first form of the Protevangelium of James, the Gospel of Thomas, the Apocalypse, and Gospel of Peter, etc. A fragment of the Apocalypse of Peter, which stood in high repute in the early Church, was discovered in 1892. The Gnostics had gospels of their own, e,g., the Cainites had a Gospel of Jude, the Gospel of the Egyptians and Gospel of Thomas originated and were in wide use in Gnostic circles. A special interest attaches to the Gospel of Peter, the use of which was forbidden in church in the end of the second century by Serapion, Bishop of Antioch, on account of its docetic character.

An important fragment of this gospel was discovered in 1886. It begins in the middle of the history of the Passion and breaks off in the narrative of the Resurrection. The gospel implies the canonical accounts, but greatly alters and adds to them. It bears out the charge of docetism, Jesus when crucified "held His peace as though having no pain." His exclamation on the cross was, "My Power, My Power, Thou hast forsaken Me.”


Last modified: Thursday, August 9, 2018, 1:08 PM