The 2nd Century Rise of Heresy (Part 2 of 3)
By Kelly McDonald, Jr.
Last week we began to discuss some of the factors that preceded the rise of heresy in the second century. In part two of this series, we will review some of the heretics of the second century and their teachings. There are at least five common beliefs shared among them:
1) Many were influenced by Gnosticism.
2) They were very anti-Semitic.
3) They devalued or disregarded the Old Testament as the background source for the New Testament.
4) They sought to replace the Old Testament with Greek philosophy, cultural influences, Stoicism or Gnostic sources.
5) They tried to replace or edit the writings that we call the New Testament.
Gnosticism is a belief system which blended Greek and Middle Eastern influences. Some of their common beliefs are as follows: matter is evil and spiritual things are good; an inferior god made the material world and a superior god made the spiritual realm; spirit and matter are opposed; and a strong emphasis on the gaining of knowledge as essential to the salvation of one’s immortal soul.
Paul had to address Gnosticism in his letter to the Corinthians. This church was focused on obtaining mysteries and operating in spiritual gifts, but they were loose in their morals. Paul explained in I Corinthians 3:16-17, 6:9-20 that sin committed in the body is still sin against God. Gnosticism had an even greater influence among Christians in the second century AD.
The heretics of the second century also had a hatred for the Jewish people. Their rhetoric is disgusting – some of believed that Christ came to destroy the God of the Jews.
Third, they wanted to devalue or disregard the Old Testament, which was the source material for God’s covenant with Israel and Judah. This part of the Bible also required submission of the human body to a holy lifestyle abhorred by Gnostics. They wanted Greek philosophy or some other belief system to replace the Old Testament. This would produce a twisted view of Christ’s life and the lives of the early disciples.
This development led them to write their own New Testament manuscripts or edit existing ones with their own spin to them. All these actions by Gnostics added confusion within the Christian community and among the general public. Those who sought the True God would be confused about Christianity.
In the late second century, several Christian writers wrote extensive works refuting these heretics – including Irenaeus, Clement of Alexandria, Tertullian, and Hippolytus. Unfortunately, Christianity was stained by the time they came along. Many of them were influenced to one degree or another by heretical teaching.
Among the first false teachers were Saturninus and Basilides, who began to spread heresy during the time of the Roman Emperor Hadrian (117-138 AD) and continued to do so into the reign of Antonius (138-161 AD). Irenaeus, who lived in this time period, wrote about their errors:
“1. Arising among these men, Saturninus (who was of that Antioch which is near Daphne) and Basilides laid hold of some favourable opportunities, and promulgated different systems of doctrine — the one in Syria, the other at Alexandria…. Man, too, was the workmanship of angels, a shining image bursting forth below from the presence of the supreme power…He has also laid it down as a truth, that the Saviour was without birth, without body, and without figure, but was, by supposition, a visible man; and he maintained that the God of the Jews was one of the angels; and, on this account, because all the powers wished to annihilate his father, Christ came to destroy the God of the Jews, but to save such as believe in him…This heretic was the first to affirm that two kinds of men were formed by the angels — the one wicked, and the other good. And since the demons assist the most wicked, the Saviour came for the destruction of evil men and of the demons, but for the salvation of the good” (Irenaeus, Against Heresies, 1:24:2; emphasis mine throughout).
Saturninus was a dualist gnostic, so he viewed matter as evil. This caused him to deny the bodily birth of Christ; he taught that the Lord only appeared as an apparition. Moreover, he promoted the idea that angels created mankind and that their leader was the God of the Jews, who Christ was sent to destroy. He taught that Christ came to save good people and destroy the wicked.
The beliefs of Basilides are summarized below: “3. Basilides again, that he may appear to have discovered something more sublime and plausible, gives an immense development to his doctrines….4. Those angels who occupy the lowest heaven, that, namely, which is visible to us, formed all the things which are in the world, and made allotments among themselves of the earth and of those nations which are upon it. The chief of them is he who is thought to be the God of the Jews; and inasmuch as he desired to render the other nations subject to his own people, that is, the Jews, all the other princes resisted and opposed him. Wherefore all other nations were at enmity with his nation. But the father without birth and without name, perceiving that they would be destroyed, sent his own first-begotten Nous (he it is who is called Christ) to bestow deliverance on those who believe in him, from the power of those who made the world. He appeared, then, on earth as a man, to the nations of these powers, and wrought miracles…” (ibid, 1:24:3; emphasis mine throughout).
Basilides had viewpoints similar to Saturninus. He believed that the universe was created by angels and the chief one was the God of the Jews. He taught that Christ was sent to save the world from Him. He also denied Christ’s suffering in the flesh and affirmed that salvation came to the soul alone (ibid, 1:24:4). His followers engaged in idolatry, magic, and sorcery, yet claimed it was part of his worship of the true god.
The attack of these heretics was clear: they sought to portray the God of the Old Testament as a separate God than that of the New Testament. Saturninus goes as far to say that Jesus came to destroy the God of the Jews! How could anyone read the New Testament and come to such conclusions? When we read the Bible, it is clear that through Christ all things were created (John 1:1-3, Col. 1:15-17). Saturninus operated out of Syria and Basilides in Alexandria.
Next week we will finish by talking about two of the more popular heretics of the time period: Valentinus and Marcion.
Kelly McDonald, Jr.
BSA President – www.biblesabbath.org