History of the Catholic Church - J. MacCaffrey

Heresies of the Early Centuries

Even in the days of St. Paul heresies existed in certain parts of the Church. Some of those who had been converted from Judaism still wished to maintain the binding force and efficacy of the ceremonial law, and this gave rise to what is known as the Judaizing sects. St. Paul was the stern opponent of these bodies, and took occasion in many of his epistles to warn the faithful against them. There were Gentile converts, too, who were so attached to Greek Philosophy, that they were willing to reject everything in the Christian religion which they could not explain and prove by the powers of human reason. In other words they set their own intellect above the authority of God, and insisted on being themselves the final judges of the truths of revelation. This was the guiding principle of the many bodies known in the early Church as the Gnostics.

Amongst these early heretics might be mentioned the Docetae, who taught that the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity when he came on earth did not become man but took to himself only the appearance of man; Cerinthus, who held that Christ was a mere man born of Joseph and Mary on whom the Messiah descended at His baptism and departed from Him before His crucifixion; the Manichaeans, who sought to explain the presence of evil in the world by teaching that there were two principles, one of which was the author of all good, the other the author of all evil, and the Montanists, who in their zeal for greater strictness denied the power of the Church to forgive sins.


The mysteries of the Trinity and Incarnation being beyond the powers of human reason to understand, and the doctrine of the necessity of Grace so opposed to human pride, were likely to be selected for special attack. Sabellius and others in the third century denied that there were three distinct persons in the Blessed Trinity, but this doctrine was rejected by the Church. Later on, when the days of persecution passed, and when paganism was no longer a dangerous rival that required the attention of Christian scholars, people began to investigate more closely the doctrine of the Trinity and Incarnation, and as a result new and dangerous heresies arose. From the beginning it had been taught that Christ was both God and Man, but now individuals set themselves to inquire in what sense was Christ God? Was He God as the Father was God, of the same substance as the Father, eternal as the Father was eternal, and equal to Him in power and glory? To this question Arius a disappointed priest of Alexandria gave a negative reply. He maintained that the Son was inferior to and dependent upon the Father, and though the source of life for created things He was Himself the creation of the Father. His bishop, having endeavoured to win him back to repentance by kindness, condemned him, but in spite of the condemnation the heresy spread through the east, and it became necessary to convoke a general council to meet at Nice in the year 325.

From the earliest times the Christian communities scattered throughout the world were bound together by unity of doctrine, worship and government. This close union is brought out strongly in the epistles of St. Paul, in the decrees of the Council of Jerusalem regarding the Gentile converts and in the letters of Clement of Rome and Ignatius of Antioch; but the convocation of the bishops of the entire world to meet in solemn assembly to discuss a serious question of faith, served as an example both to believers and unbelievers of the essential unity of the Christian organisation. Over 300 bishops were present, most of them being from the east, but the provinces of the western church also sent delegates, as did Pope Sylvester I.

Amongst those who played a prominent part against Arius at the council of Nice was Athanasius, a young deacon of Alexandria, who seemed to have been raised up specially by God to defend His Church at this critical juncture. The Fathers were practically unanimous in their condemnation of the teaching of Arius, but when it came to draw up a simple formulary of faith expressive of the true doctrine regarding the relation of the Son to the Father, there was considerable difficulty. Athanasius, however, came to the rescue. He suggested the word "consubstantial," meaning thereby that the Son was of the same substance as the Father, and his suggestion was accepted. Thenceforth in the struggle with the Arians the acceptance or rejection of "consubstantial" was regarded as the test of orthodoxy. After his return from the council Athanasius was elected and consecrated bishop of Alexandria.

Yet in spite of the solemn condemnation of the council of Nice the heresy of Arius was far from being crushed. Its success was due, partly to the difficulty of the subject and the skill of Arius as a popular speaker and writer, and partly also to the fact that his followers enjoyed the secret or open support of the imperial authorities.

Constantine, deceived by his councillors in regard to the doctrine of Arius, recalled him from exile and expressed himself content with the profession of faith which he presented, but Athanasius was immovable, and refused to receive Arius again into the Church unless he accepted without qualification the decree of the council of Nice. For this refusal he was sent into exile. The bishop of Constantinople was commanded to perform the ceremony of reconciliation, but on his way to the church Arius was stricken down suddenly and died. Athanasius finding himself attacked on all sides undertook a journey to Rome to secure the approval of the Pope, and in the year 343 the council of Sardica attended by close on 200 bishops from the east and west, declared him innocent of the charges made against him, and acknowledged the right of appeal from all parts of the Church to the bishop of Rome.

Constantius (337–61), however, was determined to force Arianism on the Church, and for this purpose he obliged the bishops assembled at Arles and Milan to condemn Athanasius under threat of the severest punishment. Pope Liberius refused to confirm these decrees and was sent into exile, from which he was allowed to return owing to the disturbed condition of Rome. For years the struggle went on, Athanasius bravely leading the forces of the Church till his death in 377, when victory was almost secured. The Emperor Theodosius was an opponent of Arianism, and in order to give it its death-blow a general council of the Church was convoked at Constantinople in the year 381.

The council affirmed once more the complete equality of the Father and the Son, and defined also the divinity of the Holy Ghost against Macedonius and his disciples who denied that the Holy Ghost was really God. These decrees of the council received the confirmation of the Pope. From this time Arianism began to decline, and many of those who had fallen away returned to the Church.

Amongst those who took a leading part in defending the true doctrine against heresy were Athanasius of Alexandria, St. Basil, St. Gregory of Nazianzen, St. Gregory of Nyssa and St. John Chrysostom in the east, and St. Hilary, bishop of Poitiers, who has been called with justice, the Athanasius of the west.


Hardly had Arianism been overcome than the doctrine of the Incarnation gave rise to new heresies. Christ, according to all, was both God and Man. In what sense? Were there two persons in Christ, one human, the other divine, or was there only one person? To this question Nestorius, patriarch of Constantinople, replied that there were two persons. He maintained that there was a human person in Christ as well as a divine person, that Mary was the mother only of the human person, and consequently could not be called Mother of God. This teaching shocked the great body of the faithful, and once more the patriarch of Alexandria—this time it was St. Cyril, not Athanasius—stood forth as the champion of truth. St. Cyril appealed to Pope Celestine, the same Celestine to whom Ireland is indebted for sending to its shores the first Christian bishop. The Pope condemned the teaching of Nestorius, and appointed St. Cyril as legate for the settlement of the controversy. A general council was convoked at Ephesus, the city of the Blessed Virgin, and met in the year 431 in the cathedral dedicated to her honour. The heresy of Nestorius was condemned, and the title of Mother of God was approved as being in perfect harmony with Catholic doctrine.


Many of those who took part in the struggle against Nestorius were led into the opposite extreme. Eutyches, from whom the heresy gets its name, Eutychianism, asserted that not alone were there not two persons in Christ but that there was only one nature, the human nature being absorbed in some way by the divine. Such an error, so subversive of the Catholic doctrine of the Redemption, found much favour in the east. But fortunately Providence had raised up a strong Pope at the time in the person of Leo the Great. As soon as he learned of the new teaching he wrote his famous dogmatic epistle in which he expounded the correct Catholic doctrine. At last a general council was convoked at Chalcedon in the year 451, and when this epistle of the Pope was read the Fathers cried out with one voice, "This is the faith of the Apostles; Peter has spoken by the mouth of Leo."

Monothelite Heresy

Finally, in order to reconcile those who had persistently refused to accept the decrees of the council of Chalcedon, a certain party proposed a compromise, namely, that though it should be admitted that there were two natures in Christ, the divine and the human, yet it ought also be explained that there was only one will. This party was known as the Monothelites, and their leader was Sergius the Patriarch of Constantinople. He wrote to Pope Honorius misrepresenting his own teaching and the teaching of his opponents. Honorius, who believed that the opponents of Sergius held that there were two conflicting wills in Christ, responded by asserting that there was only one will in Christ, meaning thereby that there could not be a conflict between the divine will and the human will. After some time the sixth general council was convoked to meet at Constantinople (680). The heresy was condemned, and it was defined that there were two wills in Christ. The council also applied the epithet heretic to Pope Honorius, but in confirming the decrees of the council Pope Leo II. expressed clearly what the council wished to convey by this word, namely that Honorius was guilty of negligence and that his negligence was largely responsible for the spread of heresy. The action of Honorius cannot be used as an argument against Papal Infallibility, because in the first place, the teaching of his letter to Sergius was most probably correct though in the circumstances liable to be misunderstood, and in the second place, even if it were otherwise, the Pope made it clear that it was only the expression of his own private views, and was not intended as a dogmatic definition that must be accepted by all the faithful under pain of separation from the Church.

Heresies in the West

Most of these heresies, it will be noted, were confined entirely to the eastern church and never found active defenders in the west. From the very beginning there seems to have been a tendency towards disunion amongst the eastern Christians, a tendency that was due in great measure to their character and temperament, and which was largely responsible for the separation that took place later on of the easterns from the Church. The west, however, was not entirely free from heresy. The Donatists, who fell away at first in a dispute as to whether a certain bishop in Africa was validly consecrated or not, disturbed the peace of the Church in that country during the fourth century.

But it was the doctrine on the necessity of Grace that gave rise to the best known heresy, namely, Pelagianism. Pelagius, its author, was a monk from Britain, probably a descendant of a settler in one of the Irish colonies that lay along the western shores of Britain. He left his native country to visit Rome where he was joined by a clever companion named Coelestius. He devoted himself to preparing commentaries on the epistles of St. Paul, and it was while he was engaged on this work that his heretical system first assumed definite shape.

He maintained that man by his natural powers could merit the Beatific Vision, and that Grace, at least if understood in the sense of a supernatural help given to man, was not necessary. From Rome he went to Carthage where his doctrine was condemned (412). He then retired to the east, and a synod of bishops was held at Jerusalem to discuss the question of Grace, but as the bishops were not confident that they understood Pelagius or his adversaries, they referred the whole question to Rome. Coelestius hastened to Rome, and by misrepresentations, endeavoured to win the approval of the Pope. But his misrepresentations were exposed by several synods held at Carthage, and Pope Zosimus issued the Trattoria (418) as a solemn condemnation of the heresy. Pelagianism made its way into Britain, and Germanus, bishop of Auxerre, was despatched to expose the error of its teaching. In this work, as we shall see, he was completely successful.