(The literary Contest of Christianity in the first three centuries)
As I wrote in my previous article, already in the times of the apostles many Jews and pagans became Christians but in name only and smuggled their false religious notions and practices into the church, where they matured and eventually became known as Ebionism and Gnosticism. Ebionism is Judaizing Christianity; Gnosticism is paganizing Christianity. The Ebionites were thus the successors of the non-Christian Judaists: and the Gnostics were the successors of the non-Christian Neo-Platonists. The Ebionites and the Gnostics were the heretics in the Christian Church. They formed the Christian class of the opponents of the religion of Christ and their thought-structures formed the heresies of the first three centuries.
As to the Ebionites, they formed a Christian sect in the church but which was separated from it about the end of the second century. In all likelihood, the name was derived from the Hebrew word meaning poor and at the first was applied not to the doctrine of the Ebionites but to the poverty of their circumstances. Perhaps the name was applied to them with the former signification by their enemies and that they employed a name already existing than that they coined it to suit their purpose. That the term originally applied to the circumstances of the Ebionites is a supposition supported by arguments that may be stated thus:—that the early Christians, both Jewish and heathen, were called the poor; that as eventually the Judaizing Christians came to be the only Jewish Christians who did not lose their identity by merging with the Christian church, and who, on this account, required to be distinguished from the heathen Christians, they retained the name. It may well be that at first all Judaizing Christians went under that name. These Christians must be distinguished from the Judaists. The latter, as we have seen, were no Christians at all. They opposed and derided all that was called Christ. They were enemies of the gospel and wanted to be known as such. But the Judaizing Christians were what their name signified. They were Christians and, at least in the beginning of the apostolic age, combined with the Gentile Christianity to form the Christian church. The epistles, especially those of Paul, reveal that the Judaizing Christians divide into two classes: the conservative and the radical.
The conservative Jewish Christians accepted Paul and his teachings on free grace but believed the Mosaic ritual law still binding yet without denouncing the Gentile Christians for not keeping the law. They were not properly heretics but weak and stunted Christians. It was the presence of these weak brethren in the church that drew forth from the apostle counsel such as this: “One man esteemeth one day above another: another esteemeth every day alike. Let every man be fully persuaded in his mind.” (Rom. 14:5) This refers to the Jewish fast and feast days still observed by the weak in faith. Counsel of this character bespeaks tolerance on the part of the apostle with respect to these weak Christians. He wanted to be patient with them. What they lacked is insight into the truth. Hence, they had to be taught and not denounced. The more advanced members in the church had to refrain from judging them and setting them at naught; for “we shall all stand before the judgment seat of Christ . . . every one of us shall give account of himself to God.” (Rom. 14:10-12).
Though these conservative Judaizing Christians must not be branded heretics, certain it is that their wrong attachment to the Mosaic institutions indicated a bias in a dangerous direction—in the direction of that radicalism or heresy combated in the epistle to the Galatians,. False teachers had entered the field of labor of the apostle, who, though they at first were not openly militating against Christianity, yet strove to lead it into legalistic channels of thought. The primary tenet of their creed was that every convert to Christianity, Jew and Gentile alike, was obliged to observe the whole ceremonial law and in particular submit to circumcision. As the ritual law had waxed old and vanished away, such teaching was, at the bottom, a denial of Christ and His vicarious atonement. It was Ebionism proper in its early stages of development. These radical teachers perhaps did not think to wittingly deny Christ. Yet it is telling that, in distinction from the conservative Judaizing Christians, they were hateful of Paul. They even went so far as to attempt to undermine his personal influence and apostolic authority by claiming that, as he had received his doctrine from the Twelve, he was to be ranked with the ordinary teachers in the church. The apostle therefore found it necessary, first of all, to defend his apostolic authority by proving that he was called of God and had received his gospel by a direct revelation. Gal. 1, 2. In the second place he was obligated to attack and expose the false teachings of these Judaists and defend the doctrine of justification by faith.
Of the Ebionites proper, Origin distinguishes two classes—the extreme and the common. The former, according to Origin, differed from the non-Christian unbelieving Jews in this only that they accepted the moral teachings of Christ.
The essence of the doctrine of the common Ebionites may be set forth in five propositions:
1) Jesus is a mere man, the offspring of Joseph and Mary by natural generation. Yet His human nature is the incorporation of the spirit of an angel or of an archangel, or even of Adam.
2) Circumcision and the economy of Moses is binding for all men unto salvation. This is equivalent to saying that man established his own righteousness before God through the works of the law.
3) Of all the books of the New Testament the Gospel of St. Matthew alone is genuine.
4) Paul is an apostate heathen and a heretic; all his epistles are to be rejected.
5) God is one.
It is evident that the doctrine and practices of the false teachers, withstood by Paul, were not uprooted. They abided; and the name Ebionism, it is clear, is the designation of this very doctrine in the final stages of its development. How true the Dutch adage: “Beginselen werken door.”
At the close of the second century the Ebionites inhabited chiefly the coasts of the dead sea, but they dwelt also in Rome an Cyprus. They disappeared as a distinct sect from the stage of history in the beginning of the 8th century circa 420: but their doctrines, in every changing form, survive them through the centuries and are with us today.
Essentially, the Ebionites in their attitude toward the true Christ of the Scriptures differed nothing from the non-Christian Judaists. It is therefore wholly correct to say that the Ebionites were the successors of the Judiasts.
Another error, most subtle and dangerous, was Gnosticism. The name is derived from the Greek word gnosis meaning knowledge. But it is the knowledge or wisdom of man. In the New Testament this word is frequently used by St. Paul and in the epistle of St. Peter to express the saving knowledge of God in Christ.
Gnosticism derives its ideas both from Heathenism and Christianity. It is therefore more comprehensive than Neo-Platonism with which it is akin. It is an infusion of paganism into Christianity. As such it is representative of a striving on the part of the old pagan world to make out of its diverse religious and speculative culture a universal gospel, method of salvation, that could serve as a substitute for the Gospel of the Holy Scriptures and would appeal to all men including God’s people, it is therefore not openly hostile to Christianity, as is Neo-Platonism, but hails it as the highest stage of development of religion and takes it up and gives it a place in its system but so corrupts it as to destroy its identity.
At the same time the Gnostics strove to solve the deep riddles of the universe, viz., the origin of life and the origin of evil,—how life sprung from God, the infinite source,—how a world so imperfect as this could proceed from a supremely perfect God,—to solve these riddles not by reason but by fancy, spiritual intuition. Hence the Gnostics do not reason in a logical way in their literature but construct for their readers wonderful word-pictures. They clothe their ideas not in simple language but in the garb of type and symbol as do the prophets of God of the Old Testament Scriptures. Those who have mastered their literature say that it reads much like the Revelations of John. “Demoniacal possessions and resurrections from the dead, miracles of healing and punishments and accumulated without end; the constant repetition of similar events gives the long stories a certain monotony, which is occasionally interrupted by hymns and prayers of genuine poetic value. A rich apparatus of visions, angelic appearances, heavenly voices, speaking animals, defeated and humbled demons is unfolded, a super terrestrial splendor of light gleams up, mysterious signs from heaven, earthquakes, thunder and lightning frighten the impious; fire, earth, wind, and water obey the pious; serpents, lions, leopards, tigers, and bears are tamed by a word of the apostles and turn upon their persecutors; the dying martyrs are surrounded by coronets, roses, lilies, incense, while the abyss opens to swallow their enemies.”
In providing their speculations with a basis, the Gnostics drew upon the Bible and upon the copious unauthentic documents, which appeared in the second century under the names of eminent teachers in the church. Gnosticism is plainly indicative of an attempt on the part of Satan to divert men’s minds from the truth in Christ Jesus and to beguile even the faithful.
The primary principles of thought of this system can be set forth in few words. Also in this system God even in and for Himself is a wholly unintelligible, super-rational being, an infinite blank, before whom all thought is powerless, a primeval being, an infinite background, without attributes of any kind, without life and without thought, above existence and above goodness. This is a perversion of the Scriptural doctrine that God dwells in a light accessible only to Him and that His self-revelation to man is but the earthy reflection of the glories of His infinite being.
Yet, strangely enough, though God is unintelligible even to Himself and above existence, He is yet an active force, perpetually producing something else not by the power of His creative word but through an outflow from His very being, (pantheism).
That which springs from this transcendent source—God—is not this earth and its fullness but a series of spiritual powers or energies to which are given names—mind, reason, wisdom, power, truth, life, goodness, etc.,—and which therefore correspond in a formal sense to the attributes of the true God of the Scriptures. It is only through these powers that the infinite being of the Gnostics passes into life and activity, and becomes known. This is plainly a caricature of the Scriptural doctrine of revelation. To this spiritual world is given the name of fullness (pleroma) and the divine powers composing it, in their ever-expanding procession from the being of God, are called aeons. Christ is the most perfect aeon,
To understand this system further—it cannot be really understood, as it is too vague, confused and irrational—account must be taken of the Gnostic conception of matter (in contrast to spirit) as an inherently and essentially evil substance. It therefore cannot proceed from the good God but is uncreated and thus a kind of second deity, in eternal opposition to God and the ideal world, and the principle of evil in our material world. The latter is the handiwork of a fallen aeon, called the Demiurge, the Jehovah of Judaism, who wrongly imagines himself to be the supreme and only god. His throne is not in the ideal light-world but in the heavens of the planets, and he rules over this visible world, the raging kingdom of the devil, and resist the purposes of God.
Matter, the evil principle in this world, being in itself dead, is animated by an aeon of the light-world (veiled pantheism).
Christ, the most perfect aeon, assumes not a real but a ghost-like body. His appearance in the flesh is therefore deceptive. He saves through communicating to a small circle of elect the gnosis (knowledge).
Common to all Gnostics was the notion that the divinely created body, in distinction from the spirit of man, is inherently evil and that its sensuality must be overcome by abusive treatment. But all did not employ the same measures. Some thought to reach this objective through the practicing of extreme rigor and self-denial such as abstaining from certain kinds of food and all nuptial intercourse; others through bidding defiance to all moral laws and abandoning themselves to the most shameless licentiousness. Here the diabolical principle of action was that voluptuousness must be conquered by unrestrained indulgence in it.
There were soon many sects of the Gnostics, the description of which need not be given here. They were all branches of a common sect. But it was not till the first quarter of the 2nd century that Gnostism came to full and systematic development; and then it ranges from two main centers—Antioch in Syria, and Alexandria. The founder of the Syrian Gnostic school was Meander, the pupil of Simon Magnus of Acts 8. Prominent in this Gnosis is the never ending struggle between the Supreme God, on the one hand, and the Demiurge and his angels or aeons, on the other hand.
Then there was the great school of Gnosticism represented by the famous Marcion whose field of influence was Asia Minor. Marcion was the son of a Christian Bishop, who is said to have excommunicated him. To him the Jehovah of the Old Testament Scriptures is the Demiurge in conflict with the Supreme God and with Christ whom he sent to redeem the world from the power of this Demiurge.
The Gnostics did not organize themselves into congregations in separation from the Christian church. They formed no sect but a multitude of philosophic schools. Many of them remained in the church and regarded themselves as the spiritually superiors in it. Some even held ecclesiastical office.
Though all Gnostic systems are heathen in their character, Gnosticism assumes three forms, known, the one from the other, by the heathen, the Jewish, and the Christian elements preponderating respectively in its syncretism,. In the ethical point of view, we perceive two main branches: the ascetic and the libertine.
The following characteristics are common to nearly all Gnostics systems. (1) Pantheism; the conception of the identity of God and the world—the one being the supreme eternal substance of which the other is the perpetual outlow, manifestation, and form. In some of these systems this pantheistic notion stands out in bold relief; in others it is veiled. (2) The separation of the Demiurge—the creator of our visible world—from the supreme God. (8) Dualism: the notion according to which matter is inherently evil and riots independent of and in eternal opposition to it he supreme God, He being powerless to overcome it. (4) Docetism; the reduction of the human nature of the Redeemer to a mere Ghost-like appearance. Finally, in all these systems man is his own redeemer. He achieves his own salvation through liberating his spirit from the chains of matter (the body) and from the bondage of this visible world and its rulers, the planetary spirits, as aided by the gnosis (knowledge) imparted to him by the Redeemer. This “knowledge,” a mystical enlightenment which only the spiritual can receive, brings man into communion with the heaven of spiritual realities. Christ is the revealer of the unknown, supreme God. By His illumination all “spiritual” men are brought back to the realm of the good God. Gnosticism had no need of the vicarious atonement of Christ and it therefore made no room for it in its system. Mankind divides into three classes: the spiritual, who could receive “knowledge;” the psychical capable of faith; and the material who could receive no message.
Gnosticism gradually lost importance after the middle of the 3rd century (A.D. circa 250); but was revived at the close of that century by a high-born Persian, Mani, who gave to his new system his name—hence Manichaeism,. This ism, together with Neo- Platonism, was the final result reached, after a history of more than a thousand years, by the pagan religious development of the civilized nations from Persia to Italy. In the point of view of the headway that it made and the great number of adherents that it gained, (not certainly in the point of view of its intrinsic worth; it had no worth), Manichaeism ranked with Christianity, which had to wage with it a long conflict. Unlike the Gnostics of former days, the Manichaeans organized congregations. Manichaeism, therefore, was more than a school; it was a church and as such a formidable rival of organized Christianity. It had a strictly hierarchical organization headed by twelve apostles, among whom Mani and his successors, like St. Peter and the popes of Rome, was the supreme judicial power,. There were thus in existence at this time two great church formations: the Christian and the Manichaean.
In every point of view Manichaeism was Satan’s crowning achievement. Its gnosis was almost complete. It retained all the mythologies of the old pagan Semitic religions of nature and transformed them into “doctrines,” but abolished all their immoral cultus, and substituted instead a spiritual worship and a strict morality. It offered, further, redemption, revelation, and life everlasting. It shows to what length Satan will go to provide men with a substitute of the Gospel of Christ: what he is willing that they should have in the way of religion and morals if only they ask not for the true Christ and the God of the Scriptures and continue worshipping at his shrine.
Manichaeism is the ancient Babylonian religion, the original source of all the gnosis of Western Asia, wonderfully refined. It is Satan’s temple, reconstructed along the lines of God’s house—the Christian church—the purpose being to beguile, if possible, even the elect of God into worshipping there.
Manichaeism was everywhere persecuted. The Roman emperors enacted strict laws against its adherents. But the system still continued to exist. It accompanied the Christian church until the 13th century.