Heresies of the Apostolic Age

William Cunningham


WE have very plain intimations given us in the sacred Scriptures, that even while the apostles lived, errors of various kinds were broached, and disturbed the purity and peace of the church; and we have predictions that these would continue and extend. We have not much explicit information given us in the New Testament as to what these errors or heresies were. But they engaged the attention, and they occupy a prominent place in the works, of the Christian authors who lived after the apostles, and the heresies fill a considerable department in the ecclesiastical history of these early ages. Irenæus, who was a disciple of Polycarp, who flourished during the latter half of the second century, and who has many claims upon our respect, wrote a book against the heresies of the age, which has come down to us, though chiefly in a Latin translation; and this, with the remains of Hippolytus, is the main source of our information as to the doctrines of the earlier heretics. Irenæus was accustomed — and in this he was followed by the generality of the fathers who succeeded him, including both those who have written fully and formally upon heresies, such as Epiphanius and Augustine, and those who have adverted to the subject more incidentally — to use the word heresy, not as we do, to denote an important deviation from sound doctrine made by one who professed to believe in the divine, mission of Jesus and the authority of the Scriptures, but any system of error into which any reference to Christ and Christianity was introduced, even though those who maintained it could not with propriety be called Christians, and could not have been members of any Christian church. We find that errors of this sort did, in point of fact, disturb the purity and the peace of the early church, that they are adverted to and condemned by the apostles in their addresses to the churches, and that they engaged much of the attention of the early fathers; and as they called them heresies, they continue to rank under that name in ecclesiastical history, though the word is now commonly used in a more limited sense, and though these early heresies might with more propriety be called forms of infidelity. Many of the notions explained and discussed under the head of the heresies of the first and second centuries are very like the ravings of madmen who followed no definite standard, whether natural or supernatural, whether reason or Scripture, but who gave full scope to their imaginations in the formation of their systems. They did not exert a permanent or extensive direct influence, because they had no plausible foundation to rest upon. An investigation, therefore, into the history and precise tenets of the heretics of the first two centuries, — and this observation applies also in some measure to the third century, — is rather curious, than either very interesting or useful. The monstrous systems of these heretics did not take a very firm hold of men’s minds, and cannot be said to have directly influenced to any considerable extent the views of the church in subsequent ages. They were, indeed, connected with some questions which have always occupied and still occupy the minds of reflecting men, such as the origin and cause of evil, and the creation of the world as connected with the subject of the origin of evil. But the early heretics, though they propounded a variety of theories upon these subjects, cannot be said to have thrown any light upon them, or to have materially influenced the views of men who have since investigated these topics, under the guidance either of a sounder philosophy, or of more implicit deference to God’s revelation.

Gnosticism, indeed, which may be properly enough used as a general name for the heretical systems of the first two centuries, — and in some measure also of the third, although in the third century Manichæism obtained greater prominence, — forms a curious chapter in the history of the human mind, and may furnish some useful and instructive lessons to the observer of human nature, and to the philosophical expounder of its capacities and tendencies. It strikingly illustrates some of the more simple and obvious doctrines of Scripture about the natural darkness of men’s understandings. It is a striking commentary upon the apostle’s declaration that the world by wisdom knew not God, and that men professing to be wise became fools. But it is not of any great importance in a purely theological point of view, inasmuch as it throws little light upon the real system of divine truth, and has had little direct influence upon the subsequent labours of men in investigating, under better auspices, the subjects which it professed to explain. Indeed, the principal practical use of a knowledge of the early heresies is, that an acquaintance with them does throw some light upon some portions of the word of God which refer to them. This is an object which, indeed, is of the highest value, and it may be said to be in some measure the standard by which we should estimate the real value of all knowledge. The highest object at which we can aim, so far as the mere exercise of the understanding is concerned, is to attain to an accurate and comprehensive knowledge of the revealed will of God; and whatever contributes to promote this, and just in proportion as it does so, is to be esteemed important and valuable. We should desire to ascertain, as far `as possible, the true meaning and application of every portion of God’s word; and appropriate and apply aright everything that is fitted to contribute to this result. We can easily conceive that the writings of the apostolical fathers might have conveyed to us information which would have thrown much light upon some of the more obscure and difficult passages in the New Testament. They might, for example, have given us information which would have settled some of those chronological questions in the history of Paul, and of his journeys and epistles, which, from the want of any definite materials in Scripture to decide them, have given rise to much discussion. They might have given us information which would have rendered more obvious and certain the interpretation of some passages which are obscure and have been disputed, because we know little of the prevalent customs that may have been referred to, or of the condition and circumstances of the church in general, or of some particular church at the time. They might possibly have conveyed to us information upon many points which, without their so intending it, might have admitted of a useful application in this way, and to these objects. And we might have made this application of the information, and thus have established the true meaning of some portions of Scripture, without ascribing to those who conveyed the information to us any authority, or attaching any weight to their opinion, as such. All this might have been; but we have had occasion to show that, in point of fact, God has not been pleased to convey to us, through the early ecclesiastical writers, much information that admits of a useful practical application in the interpretation of Scripture.

One exception, however, to this remark, — one case in which the information communicated to us by subsequent writers does give us some assistance in understanding the meaning and application of some passages of the New Testament, and the propriety and suitableness of the words in which they are expressed, — is to be found in this matter of the early heresies, while it is also the chief practical purpose to which a knowledge of the early heresies is to be applied. Of the persons mentioned by name in the New Testament, as having in some way set themselves in opposition to the apostles, or as having deserted them, viz., Hermogenes, Phygellus, Demas, Hymennæus, Philetus, Alexander, and Diotrephes, we have no certain or trustworthy information in early writers, in addition to the very brief notices given of them in Scripture; for we cannot regard the explanations given of the passages, when they are mentioned by commentators of the fourth and fifth centuries,1 as of any value or weight, except in so far as they seem to be fairly suggested by the Scripture notices. The most specific indication given us in the New Testament of a heresy, combined with the mention of names, is Paul’s statement regarding Hymenæus and Philetus, of whom he tells2 that “concerning the truth,” — i.e., in a matter of doctrine, — “they have erred, saying that the resurrection is past already, and overthrow the faith of some.” Of Hymenæus and Philetus personally we learn nothing from subsequent writers; we have no information throwing any direct light upon the specific statement of Paul as to the nature of the heresy held by them. But, in what we learn generally from subsequent writers as to the views of some of the Gnostic sects, we have materials for explaining it. We know that the Gnostic sects in general denied the doctrine of the resurrection of the body. The Docetæ, more especially, denying the reality of Christ’s body, of course denied the reality of His death and resurrection; and having thus taken out of the way the great pattern and proof of the resurrection, it was an easy step to deny it altogether. Still some explanation must, if possible, be given of statements that seemed to assert or imply a resurrection of the body. Paul tells us that these men said it was past already; and here the inquiry naturally arises. What past thing was it to which they pointed as being the resurrection? Now Irenæus informs us3 that Menander, one of the leading Gnostics of the first century, taught that Gnostic baptism was .the resurrection, and the only resurrection that was to be expected. And when we thus learn that there was a sect of Gnostics in the apostolic age who allegorized away the resurrection into baptism, we can have no difficulty in seeing what Hymenæus and Philetus meant when they said that it was past already.4

In regard to Simon Magus and the Nicolaitanes, who are mentioned in Scripture, we have a good deal of information given us by subsequent writers; but it is not of a kind fitted to throw any light upon the statements made in Scripture concerning them. It is new and additional information regarding them, which there is nothing in Scripture to lead us to expect. It is not inconsistent, indeed, with Scripture, and may be all true. As it throws no light upon the statements of Scripture concerning them, but is purely historical in its character and application, and as even historically it is attended with considerable difficulties and no small measure of uncertainty, I shall not further enlarge upon it.

The heresies, however, to which there seem to be the most frequent references in Scripture, and a knowledge of which throws most light upon time interpretation of its statements, are those of Cerinthus and time Docetæ.

As the first century advanced, and the apostles were most of them removed from this world, the Gnostic heresies seem to have become somewhat more prevalent, to have been brought to bear more upon some of the subjects comprehended in the Christian revelation, and to have affected more the state and condition of the church. The Docetæ denied the reality of Christ’s body, and of course of His sufferings; and maintained that these were mere phantoms or appearances; and we find that the apostle John repeatedly referred to this heresy, and that an acquaintance with its nature throws some light upon the true import of some of his statements. We find also, both in the epistles of Ignatius and Polycarp, and in the Gospel of John, references to the doctrines of Cerinthus. We know that the doctrine of the crucifixion of the Saviour was to the Jews a stumbling-block, and to the Greeks foolishness. And, accordingly, we find that very soon some who did not altogether deny Christ’s divine mission, began to explain away His crucifixion. These attempts were made even in the apostolic age; and we have pretty full accounts of them as managed by some Gnostic heretics in the second century, such as Saturninus and Valentinus. Some have supposed that Paul referred to them when he spoke of enemies of the cross of Christ; but the expression in that passage seems rather to be taken in a wider and less specific sense. But there can be no reasonable doubt that John referred to them in his epistles. Indeed, the very first sentence of his first epistle may be fairly regarded as bearing a reference to the heresy of the Docetæ: “That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon,” or carefully inspected, “and our hands have handled of the Word of life.” The apostle was not likely to have added the last clause, “which our hands have handled,” but because he had a reference to some such error as that which we know was taught by the Docetæ, or Phantasiastæ, as they were also called, who held that Christ’s body was such only in appearance, — that it was a mere phantasm, which appeared indeed a body to the eyes of men, but would not admit of being handled. Time heresy of the Docetæ plainly implied a denial of the incarnation of Christ in any proper sense, — a denial that He had taken to Himself a true body; in short, a denial that He had come in the flesh. Hence the apostle says, in the beginning of the fourth chapter, “Every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh is of God: and every spirit that confesseth not that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh is not of God: and this is that spirit of antichrist, whereof ye have heard that it should come; and even now already is it in the world,” — a statement illustrated by one of Jerome’s, viz., that even while the apostles were alive, and the blood of Christ still fresh in Judæa, men arose who maintained that His body was a mere phantasm or deceitful appearance. The statement that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh, is a plain assertion of His incarnation, and clearly implies that He existed previously to His coming, and that contemporaneously with His coming He took flesh, or assumed a true and real body. It is an assertion of His incarnation, in the sense in which we have explained it, against whoever may deny it, and upon whatever ground the denial may rest, and is equally conclusive against the modern Socinians and the ancient Docetæ; but the knowledge of what were the views of the ancient Docetæ throws light upon the import of the expression, and illustrates the propriety and exact bearing of the words employed.

It is true that, if John here intended more immediately to contradict the heresy of the Docetæ, the declaration that Jesus Christ came in the flesh, cannot be regarded as in itself equivalent to, or co-extensive with, the position that He assumed human nature. It would in that case merely assert that He, having previously existed, took, when He came, a true body, without asserting also that He took likewise a reasonable soul. And indeed the controversy as to the soul of Christ is one of later origin than the apostolic age, or the first century. But there is no difficulty in proving from other parts of Scripture, that Jesus Christ, when He came, took a reasonable human soul, as well as a true body. Incarnation, in the literal meaning of the word — ensarkosis — is here expressly asserted, implying a previous existence, and an assumption of a true and real body as contemporaneous and identical with His coming or with His appearance in this world. An assertion of the reality of Christ’s flesh or body, while He was on earth, was all that was necessary in condemning the Docetæ, and warning the church against them; but under the guidance of the Holy Ghost, it is expressed in words which plainly imply a previous existence, so that the statement is, as we have said, just as conclusive against modern as against ancient heretics.

We have said also that the apostle John referred to the heresy of Cerinthus; and indeed Irenæus tells us that John wrote his gospel principally in order to oppose the doctrines which Cerinthus had been propagating; and we know of no ground, external or internal, for disbelieving this. We learn from the testimony of subsequent writers, that Cerinthus held — and in this he was followed by some other Gnostic heretics of the second century — that Jesus and Christ must be carefully distinguished from each other: that Jesus was a mere man; that Christ, one of the aiones, descended upon Him at His baptism, dwelt in Him till He was about to suffer death, and then left Him, and returned to the pleroma. Now, this whole theory is contradicted and exploded by the position, that Jesus is Christ. This position, in terminis, denies the distinction which the Cerinthians made between them, and it plainly implies that there never was a time when Jesus existed, and was not Christ, which is in direct opposition to what we know the Cerinthians held upon this point. Now John, in the next chapter of his epistle, the fifth, at the beginning lays down this position, “Whosoever believeth that Jesus is the Christ is born of God.” We have, indeed, similar statements to this in the book of the Acts, in the recorded preaching of the apostles. They laboured to prove to the Jews that Jesus was the Christ; and the meaning of this manifestly is just this, that Jesus was the Messiah promised to the fathers and predicted by the prophets. But when we know, that before John wrote this epistle, men had arisen who were disturbing the purity and peace of the church by making a distinction or separation between Jesus and Christ; when we see that, in the context, John is warning the churches against another branch of the heresy concerning Christ’s person; and when we know that this heresy, which consisted substantially in a denial that Jesus is Christ, not only existed in John’s time, but continued to infest the church for several succeeding generations, we can scarcely refuse to admit that the statement is to be taken here in a more limited and specific sense than that in which it is employed in the book of the Acts, and was intended to be, what it really is, a denial of the heresy of Cerinthus; and moreover, by plain implication, an assertion of the vital or fundamental importance of right views of the person of Christ, as intimately connected with those radical changes of character which bear so directly upon the salvation of men’s souls.

I have no doubt that it has been often proved that the introduction of John’s gospel is an exposure of the heresies of the Docetæ and the Cerinthians, of those who even at that time denied His incarnation and real humanity, and of those who, while admitting that Christ came down from heaven and was in some sense divine, separated Jesus from Christ, — held that Christ left Jesus before His final sufferings, and, of course, denied anything like the permanent union of the divine and human natures in His one person. But it would be to go out of our way to enter at any length into the illustration of this subject. I have made these observations, not so much for the purpose of explaining those portions of the New Testament which refer to the early heresies, — for I have merely glanced, and very hurriedly, at a few of them, — but rather for the purpose of showing that a knowledge of the ancient heresies is not so entirely destitute of all direct utility as at first sight it might appear to be; and that it has some bearing, though neither very extensive nor very influential, upon the great object of opening up the true and exact meaning of some portions of the word of God.

In asserting the comparative unimportance of a knowledge of the early heresies, I must be understood as referring rather to the detailed exposition of the particular views of individuals as formal categorical doctrines, than to the leading effects and results of the Gnostic system as a whole, or in its main features; for though the historical questions as to what were the precise doctrines held by this heretic and by the other in the first or second century, are not of much importance in themselves, besides being often involved in considerable doubt or uncertainty, I have no doubt that the Gnostic system did exert a considerable influence upon the views and condition of the church in early times, especially in regard to two points, — viz., first, the Trinity and the person of Christ; and secondly, what has been called the ascetic institute or discipline, as including celibacy and monasticism, which soon began to prevail so widely in the church, and which exerted so injurious an influence. The earliest heretics upon the subject of the Trinity and the person of Christ were deeply involved in the principles of the Gnostic system; and even those who maintained sound and orthodox views upon these points, in opposition to the heretics, especially in the third century, gave many indications that they were too much entangled in rash and presumptuous speculations about matters connected with the Divine nature, above the comprehension of the human faculties, and not clearly’ revealed in Scripture. The great body of the church, indeed, preserved in the main a scriptural orthodoxy upon these important questions; and when, in the fourth and fifth centuries, they came to be fully discussed and decided on in the councils of the church, the creeds and decrees adopted were, on the whole, so accordant with Scripture, as to have secured the general concurrence of subsequent generations.

It was not so, however, with the ascetic institute. Upon this subject the leaven of the Gnostic system seems to have insinuated itself into the great body of the church itself, even when its formal doctrines were openly condemned; and to have gradually succeeded in exerting a most injurious influence upon the general tone of sentiment and practice. The indirect influence of the Gnostic system, absurd and ridiculous as that system was in its more formal and specific doctrines, has been developed with great ingenuity and sagacity, and in a very impressive way, in Mr. Isaac Taylor’s very valuable and interesting work entitled “Ancient Christianity,” written in opposition to Tractarianism, — a work which, though it contains some rather strong and extreme views, naturally enough arising from the zealous prosecution of one important object, ought to be carefully studied by all who wish to understand the true condition of the church, both in regard to doctrine and practice in that period — viz., the latter half of the fourth and the first half of the fifth centuries — which has been held up by the Tractarians as the great model according to which the church should now be regulated.5 Celibacy and monasticism were the cases in which Gnostic principles were most clearly and fully developed among those who adhered to the church; but those who are curious in tracing the progress and connection of doctrines profess to discover traces of its operation in other views and notions that prevailed in early times, and were afterwards fully developed in Popery.

Gnosticism, viewed as a general description of a system, and abstracted from the special absurdities and extravagances which particular individuals mixed up with it, is regarded by many, and apparently with justice, as being traceable to a sort of combination of the Oriental theosophy, the Jewish cabbala, and the Platonic philosophy. And in the course of the second century, and still more in the third, we see traces, on the one hand, of this system of philosophical speculation being modified by the influences of the Christian revelation and its contents; and, on the other hand, of the views that prevailed in the church among those who professed a greater respect for the sacred Scriptures being more and more influenced by the prevailing philosophy. The result was the formation of a class of men in regard to whom it remains to this day a subject for controversial discussion, whether or not they were Christians in any sense, — a question which, in the same sense, might be discussed in regard to many modern philosophers. The question practically assumes this form: Did they, or did they not, admit the authority of the Christian revelation as the ultimate standard in regard to every subject to which its statements apply? Now, there have been many, both in ancient and in modern times, calling themselves philosophers, who would not have liked to have given a categorical answer to this question, but whose conduct in prosecuting their speculations practically answered it in the negative. It is to be regarded as a mere difference in degree, and as not essentially affecting the rectitude of the relation in which men stood to God’s revelation, — whether, first, they openly denied its authority; or, secondly, got rid of, or explained away its statements by processes which are manifestly unfair, and which practically render it of no real utility; or, thirdly, just left it out of view altogether, and carried on their speculations about God, and man’s relation to Him, and his duties and destiny, without any reference to what the word of God teaches, — without giving any opinion, or committing themselves upon the subject, of time authority of Scripture.

Each of these three modes of casting off the controlling authority of God’s word, and leaving full scope for indulging in their own theories and speculations, — i.e., bringing all subjects, even the highest and most exalted, to be tried by the standard of their own understandings or feelings, their fancies and inclinations, — has prevailed at different times, and in different countries, according to diversities of circumstances and influences. The second mode, which consists substantially in arbitrarily rejecting some parts of Scripture, and in explaining away and perverting the rest, prevailed very generally in the early times of the church; and it has prevailed largely in the past and present generations. It was generally adopted by the Gnostics of the second and third, and by the Manichæans of the third and fourth, centuries. Origen, though remaining connected with the church, came very near to it; and it is just that which has been followed by modern rationalists and neologians upon the Continent. Mosheim6 gives the following description of the way in which the Gnostics and Manichæans dealt with the books of Scripture, — and it is impossible to read it without being struck with the remarkable and thorough similarity of their views and conduct in this matter to those of modern German rationalists: —

Non negabant quidem in plerisque Novi Testamenti libris quædam esse divina et a Christo, ejusque apostolis profecta: verum his intertexta esse plurima falsa contendebant et prorsus impia: cx quo cogebant, ea tantum in libris N. T. fide digna esse, quæ Manichæi, magistri sul, . . . sententiis congruerent. . . Interdum enim dare videntur, immo dant, divinæ originis hæc esse Evangelia: sed quod dant, statim ipsi tollunt et evertunt. Addunt enim, ea misere a dolosis et mendacibus viris corrupta, interpolata, Judaicis fabulis aucta et amplificata ease. Ex quo sequitur; en, uti nunc sese habent, nullius esse pretii et utilitatis. . . . Allis vero locis negant disertissime, ea Christi Apostolos auctores habere aut vel a Christo vel a Apostolis, quorum nomina præ se ferunt, scripta esse: contra pugnant auctores eorum homines fuisse semi-Judæos, credulos, mendaces.7

This is a most accurate full-length portrait of modern German rationalism, from the Manichæans of the fourth and fifth centuries.

The contemplation of the heresies of the early ages, viewed in connection with the heresies of modern times, is well fitted to remind us of the paramount necessity of our settling clearly and definitively, as the most important of all questions, whether God has really given us a positive supernatural revelation of His will; if so, where, or in what book, that revelation is to be found, and whether it was really intended to be understood by men in general through the ordinary natural processes of interpretation, and is fitted to be a standard of faith and practice; and after having settled this, and made our minds familiar with the grounds on which our judgment on these points rests, of making a constant, honest, and unshrinking application, to every subject of thought and practice, of the word of God, which liveth and abideth for ever.8


  1. Ittigius, de Hæres., pp. 84-86.
  2. 2 Tim. ii. 17, 18.
  3. B. i., c. 23.
  4. Buddei Eccles. Apost., c. v.; Moshemii Inst. Maj., p. 319. Burton’s Bampton Lec., p. 135, and note 57.
  5. Ancient Christianity, vol. i., p. 145, et seq.
  6. Commentarii, pp. 748-9. Vide Neander, vol. ii., p. 163 of Rose’s translation, and pp. 225-6 of Torrey’s. Norton’s Evidence of the Genuineness of the Gospels, vol. iii., pp. 183-213; Part III., c. x.: “Of the manner in which the Gnostics reconciled their doctrines with Christianity.” 1st Ed.
  7. “They did not deny that in most of the books of the New Testament there were some things that were divine, and that came from Christ and His apostles; but they contended that there were mixed up with these many things that were false and impious; whence they inferred that those things only in the N.T. were worthy of credit which agreed with the opinions of their master Manichæus;” and again, “Sometimes they seem to grant, nay, they do grant, that these gospels are of divine origin; but what they grant they immediately again withdraw and overturn. For the add that they have been miserably corrupted and interpolated by deceitful and mendacious men, and stuffed with Jewish fables; whence it follows that, as we now have them, they are of no value or utility . . . But in other passages they expressly deny that these books have the apostles of Christ for their authors, or that they were written either by Christ or by the apostles whose names they bear; and, on the contrary, maintain that their authors were half Jews, credulous and deceitful.”

    Neander gives a similar account of their principles and conduct in this respect: — “In respect to the views of the Manichæans with regard to the sources of religious knowledge, they considered the revelations of the Paraclete, or Mani, as the highest and only infallible authority, whereby everything was to be judged. They went on the principle, that Mani’s doctrine embraced the absolute truths which enlighten the reason: — whatever did not accord with them was contrary to reason, wherever it might be found. The received in part, it is true, the Scriptures of the New Testament. But judging them by that standard principle which we have mentioned, they indulged in the most arbitrary criticism in applying them to points of doctrine or ethics. Sometimes they asserted that the original records of the religion had been falsified by various corruptions of the prince of darkness (tares among the wheat); had accommodated themselves to existing Jewish opinions, with a view to prepare men gradually for the reception of the pure truth; sometimes, that the apostles themselves, when they first appeared in the character of teachers, were entangled in various Jewish errors. Hence they concluded that it was first by the teachings of the Paraclete, men were enabled to distinguish the true from the false matter in the New Testament.” — Torrey’s translation, vol. Ii., pp. 225-6.
  8. Consult Ittigius, Buddæus, Lardner, Mosheim, Burton, Neander.


William Cunningham, Principal of New College, Edinburgh, from 1847 till his death in 1861, was on e of the greatest of Scottish theologians. With his breadth of learning, depth of evangelical insight, exactness of thought and vigorous stately style, Cunningham was the Warfield — one might almost say, the Calvin — of the Free Church of Scotland for the first two decades of her life. This article is taken from the Banner of Truth edition of Cunningham's Historical Theology, 1979, Vol. I, chap. V,  pp. 121-133.

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