History of the Church: Christian Antiquity - Notre Dame

Some Early Heresies and Defenders of the Faith

[Illustration] from Church - Christian Antiquity by Notre Dame

I. Chief Heresies

Heresy of Arius

While Constantine the Great worked at the destruction of idolatry, and at extending the faith throughout his dominions, a new enemy appeared among the members of the Church itself in the person of Arius, an apostate priest. This wicked man taught that God the Son was not equal in all perfections to God the Father, that He was not co-eternal with the Father, but was created by Him as first and chief among creatures.

St. Alexander, Bishop of Alexandria, called a Synod which excommunicated Arius, and condemned his teaching, A.D. 321. After this Arius went into Palestine, where he persuaded Eusebius, Bishop of Nicomedia, to adopt his views. This bishop secured for Arius the favour of the Emperor, and that of many bishops of Asia Minor.

As the heresy was becoming so widespread, a General Council was held at Nicaea, in Asia Minor, to examine and condemn the doctrines taught by Arius and his followers. St. Athanasius was the chief champion of the Catholic Faith, which teaches that the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity is God, co-eternal with God the Father, and co-equal with Him in all things. The Fathers of the Council chose the word "Consubstantial," proposed by St. Athanasius, to express this doctrine, and drew up a formula of faith containing the exact teaching of the Church about the equality of the Three Persons of the Blessed Trinity. This formula is known as the "Nicene Creed." It adds to the general teaching of the Apostles' Creed a definite profession of faith in dogmas attacked by the heretics: "And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God, born of the Father before all ages, God of God, Light of Light, True God of True God, begotten not made, con-substantial with the Father, by Whom all things were made."

After the Church had thus condemned Arianism as a heresy, Constantine banished its author to Illyricum; but afterwards his favourite sister, Constantia (who had become an Arian), wishing to please Eusebius of Nicomedia, persuaded the Emperor to allow Arius to return, A.D. 328. As St. Athanasius would not remove the sentence of excommunication that St. Alexander had passed against Arius, Eusebius and other friends of the heresiarch made several false accusations against the Saint. Constantine summoned both parties to appear before a court of inquiry; but, though St. Athanasius was declared innocent, his enemies induced the Emperor to exile him from his see to the distant city of Treves. But the faithful people of Alexandria would have nothing to do with Arius. He therefore went to Constantinople, and the Emperor ordered the bishop of that city to receive him in the Church. The bishop knew that he was powerless by himself to prevent the heresiarch's entrance. He could but pray that God would not permit such a scandal. As Arius was on his way to the church, surrounded by a triumphant crowd, he was seized with a violent illness, and withdrew. His partisans, after a while, went to seek him, and he was found dead, lying in a pool of his own blood, A.D. 336. The dreadful punishment that God inflicted upon this enemy of His Church so impressed Constantine that, when he was on his own deathbed a few months after ( A.D. 337), he gave orders for the recall of St. Athanasius from banishment; but the order was not carried out until A.D. 338. The Alexandrians received him back with great manifestations of joy.

But Constans, the son and successor of Constantine in Africa, had become an Arian, and when fresh charges were brought against St. Athanasius by his enemies, this Emperor banished him a second time, A.D. 341. He was not allowed to return to Alexandria until A.D. 349.

St. Athanasius was again banished by Constantius, who was a furious partisan of the heretics.

To such lengths did the Arian Emperor go that the venerable Hosius of Cordova, who had presided, as Papal Legate, at the Council of Nicaea, was scourged and tortured, though above eighty years of age, and thus compelled to sign an Arian creed. Pope Liberius, who had suffered nobly for the Catholic faith, was dragged into exile, and St. Athanasius was told by the heretics that the Pope had been forced to sign a similar document. St. Athanasius remarked that one who signs under compulsion shows not his own mind, but that of his oppressor. It could in no sense be regarded as a papal approval of heresy.

St. Athanasius returned to take charge of his flock on the accession of the next Emperor, Julian the Apostate, and before long the fame of the many conversions he wrought reached Julian, who immediately ordered him to quit, not only Alexandria, but even Egypt. The Saint escaped from the soldiers who came to seize him, and sailed up the Nile. When they had gone some distance, they saw the persecutors' ship gaining on them. St. Athanasius ordered the sailors to turn their boat round to meet his pursuers. The rowers did not recognize him, and asked if Athanasius were far ahead. "Press on," answered the Saint; "he is very near." The rowers redoubled their efforts, and meanwhile the holy bishop got back to Alexandria safely, and remained hidden until the death of Julian.

A fifth time he was driven away. But at last Valens, moved by the urgent entreaties of the people of Alexandria, allowed St. Athanasius to return in peace to his diocese, where he remained until his death, which occurred in A.D. 373.

The Heresy of Macedonius

Very shortly after the death of Arius his followers began to teach quite other doctrines than those he had taught them: they became divided into several sects, some of whom taught one doctrine, some another, and thus from the first great heresy of Arianism arose several others. The principal of these sects was that of the Macedonians. As Arius had attacked the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity, saying, He was not equal to God the Father, so did Macedonius, Patriarch of Constantinople, attack the Holy Ghost, the Third Divine Person. His doctrines were quickly condemned, for the Council of Constantinople was called against him in A.D. 381.

The Nicene Council had added explanations to that part of the Creed which teaches us what we must believe about Jesus Christ, True God and True Man. The Council of Constantinople did the same to the eighth article, explaining more fully the Catholic doctrine about the Holy Ghost.

The Creed called the Nicene, and of Constantinople, consists of two parts. The first part is that drawn up at Nicaea to explain the first seven articles of the Apostles' Creed. The second part, the explanation of the last five articles, is that added at Constantinople.

St. Augustine and the Pelagian Heresy

As St. Athanasius had defended the Church against the heretical teaching of the Arians, so St. Augustine was the champion of the true faith against the errors taught by Pelagius and his disciple Celestius.

St. Augustine was born at Tagaste, near Hippo, A.D. 354. He was brought up as a Christian by his mother, St. Monica, but was not baptized. Having been sent to a pagan school by his father, Patricius, he fell in with bad companions and led a very wicked life. For nine years he followed the heresy of the Manichaeans, but the prayers of St. Monica for her son were at last heard, and Augustine received the grace to abandon his sins and become, not only a great saint, but also a defender of the faith he had before neglected. He was baptized by St. Ambrose on Holy Saturday, A.D. 387. After three years St. Augustine was ordained priest, and in A.D. 395 he was consecrated Bishop of Hippo.

It was at this time that the heresy of Pelagius arose. Pelagius was a native of Britain, but went to Rome at the end of the fourth century, where he commenced to teach that we can save ourselves by our own efforts without the aid of grace, and that mankind has not inherited any stain of original sin. When Rome was sacked by the Goths in A.D. 410, Pelagius went to Carthage, where St. Augustine soon found out the errors of his teaching.

Then Pelagius went to Jerusalem and began to teach. He managed so to deceive his judges that he was acquitted of the charge of heresy. But St. Augustine, hearing of what had been done, brought the question before two Synods, which condemned the teaching of Pelagius and Celestius. The decrees of these Synods were sent to Rome, and when the, Pope confirmed them, St. Augustine said, "Rescripts have come: the case is finished "; in other words, "Rome has spoken: the cause is ended."

Later on, a milder form of the heresy of Pelagius began to be taught. It was known as Semi-Pelagianism, and held that though grace is necessary for carrying on good works, man can begin them by his own power. Against this teaching St. Augustine wrote two works to explain fully the doctrine of the Church about grace and free will. Both these heresies soon died out.

So also did the great schism and heresy of the Donatists which troubled the church in Africa for nearly a century until St. Augustine, by voice and pen, overcame it. The Donatists taught that the sacraments were rendered invalid by sin in the minister; and that sinners could not belong to the Church.

For thirty-five years St. Augustine continued to preach and write in defence of the faith. He died A.D. 430, during the siege of Hippo by the Vandals.

Another great defender of the Church against Pelagianism was St. Jerome. He was born about the year A.D. 340 in Dalmatia. He was sent to Rome to complete his studies, and was baptized there about A.D. 365. After an illness which he suffered at Antioch, St. Jerome went into the desert of Chalcis for four years.

He was ordained priest in A.D. 378, and went to Constantinople, where he helped St. Gregory Nazianzen to get rid of the Arian and Macedonian heresies from amongst his people. After three years St. Jerome went to Rome. The Pope, St. Damasus, kept him there for many years, that he might have the benefit of his assistance. After the death of this holy Pope he left the Eternal City for Bethlehem, where he spent the last years of his life in one of the caves near the grotto of the Nativity. There he directed the nuns of three convents, and gave himself up to prayer, mortification, and the study and translation into Latin of the Sacred Scriptures until his death, which took place in A.D. 420.

Nestorianism and St. Cyril of Alexandria

The next great heresy that disturbed the Church was begun by Nestorius. He taught that there were two persons in Christ, and that the Blessed Virgin is not Mother of God, but only of Christ's human person. St. Cyril, Patriarch of Alexandria, defended the glories of our Lady, and showed that, as the Catechism says, "Jesus Christ is truly God, because He has the nature of God, born of the Father from all eternity; and there is only one person in Jesus Christ, which is the Person of God the Son," so. that our Blessed Lady is truly Mother of God.

Nestorius would not submit to the condemnation of his errors by St. Cyril, so a General Council was called finally to settle the question.

The Bishops met at Ephesus, to which tradition points as the place of our Lady's death and Assumption. They condemned the heresy of Nestorius and deprived him of his see. The joy of the people of Ephesus, who had waited all day for the decision, was unbounded when they heard that the title "Mother of God" was solemnly acknowledged by the Church. The Emperor Theodosius banished Nestorius to Upper Egypt.

Eutychianism and Pope St. Leo

Eutyches, an aged priest, who lived in a monastery near Constantinople, while opposing Nes- torianism, fell into an opposite heresy, and taught that Jesus Christ had only one nature, which was a mixture of the divine and human. Flavian, Bishop of Constantinople, held a Synod in A.D. 448, which deposed and excommunicated Eutyches, and condemned his heresy.

When Pope Leo the Great heard what had been done, he wrote to Flavian approving the acts of the Synod, and explaining the Catholic doctrine about the two natures in Christ. This letter is known as the "Dogmatic Epistle" of St. Leo.

In A.D. 449, Theodosius II., the Emperor of the East, called a Council at Ephesus, but he would not allow the Pope's legates to preside or to read his Dogmatic Epistle. St. Flavian and other opponents of Eutyches were deposed. St. Flavian was condemned to exile, but was so harshly treated by the Eutychians that he died soon after. This Council is known as the "Robber Council of Ephesus," because of the violent conduct of its members. St. Leo condemned the acts of this Council, but the Emperor refused to retract the approval he had given to the "Robber Council." However, he died shortly afterwards, and the new Emperor, Marcian, took the side of the Pope and the Catholic faith.

With the consent of St. Leo, Marcian summoned a General Council at Chalcedon, in which the doctrine of the two natures in Jesus Christ was defined and the Eutychian heresy condemned. The Pope's Dogmatic Epistle was read, and when the bishops heard it they all exclaimed: "This is the faith of the Apostles; Peter has spoken by the mouth of Leo!"

But although the teaching of Eutyches was thus condemned by the Church, several Eastern Emperors continued to favour it, and the heresy continued to spread, so that it was again condemned at the General Council of Constantinople, A.D. 553. After this it gradually died out, except in a few districts where it exists still, as among the Jacobites of Syria, the Copts of Egypt, and the Abyssinian Christians

II. The Fathers of the Church

In giving the history of the different heresies, we have already named a few of the most illustrious Fathers of the Church. There were, however, many others whose learning and virtues helped to defend the Church against the attacks of heresy and schism. They are generally called the Fathers of the Eastern Church, and the Fathers of the Western Church.

Eastern Fathers

During the fourth century the principal Fathers of the East were:

  1. St. Athanasius;
  2. St. Cyril of Jerusalem, whose "Catechetical Lectures "are the earliest regular course of instruction on Christian doctrine that has come down to us;
  3. St. Basil, Bishop of Caesarea, in Cappadocia, celebrated for his eloquent preaching against the Arians and Macedonians;
  4. St. Gregory Nazianzen, the companion of the early studies of St. Basil, at Athens, renowned for his knowledge of theology;
  5. St. Gregory of Nyssa, brother of St. Basil of Caesarea;
  6. St: John Chrysostom (golden-mouthed), Bishop of Constantinople. He laboured to put a stop to the wickedness of the people, and especially of the members of the Imperial Court. The Empress Eudoxia exiled him twice, but the second time he died before he reached his destination, A.D. 407.

During the fifth century the most illustrious Father of the East was St. Cyril, Bishop of Alexandria.

Western Fathers

In the West the Church was defended by:

  1. St. Hilary of Poictiers, surnamed the "Athanasius of the West," because of his zeal against the Arians in Gaul; and
  2. St. Ambrose, who was renowned for his eloquence, and for his firmness in punishing the Emperor Theodosius the Great for causing the inhabitants of Thessalonica to be massacred.

During the fifth century the most celebrated Fathers of the Western Church were

  1. St. Jerome,
  2. St. Augustine, and
  3. St. Leo the Great, all of whom, as we have seen, laboured incessantly to put a stop to different heresies, which endangered the faith of the people.

For the Church to bestow the title of "Doctor" on any of its members she requires:

  1. that he should be very learned in all matters concerning religion, so as to be able to teach others;
  2. he must be eminently holy;
  3. the title must be confirmed by the Pope or by a General Council.

Four doctors of the Church are named in Canon law—St. Ambrose, St. Augustine, St. Jerome, and St. Gregory the Great. Among those whose titles have been confirmed by the Pope are St. Chrysostom, St. Gregory Nazianzen, St. Basil, St. Athanasius, St. Hilary, and the two SS. Cyril. Thus we see that some of these great saints have merited the title of Father and Doctor of the Church. The term "Father "was in early times given to all bishops, but, later on, it came to mean only those writers whose works were of sound doctrine and of great value in the Church, and who had led holy lives; and it is in this latter sense that we have used it.

III. Religious Life in the Early Ages

Even in the time of the Apostles we hear of holy men and women who, to imitate more closely the lives of our Blessed Lord and His Holy Mother, consecrated themselves to the service of God and of their neighbour. St. Paul makes special mention of holy women who were thus spending all their time in prayer and good works.

These widows and deaconesses, as they were then called, lived in their own homes, and served the churches and the poor. St. Agnes, St. Cecilia, St. Dorothea, and St. Agatha were all consecrated virgins living in the world, but spending their lives in good works.

A little later on, in order to be more free from worldly cares, a great number of Christians withdrew into solitary life—that is, they lived each in a separate cell near some town or village, and very often close to a church. They were called anchorites, and for many ages, even when monasteries and convents were founded, numbers of people, both men and women, still embraced this kind of life. In England, for instance, there were anchorites up to the time of the so-called Reformation.

When during the seventh persecution Christians were no longer free to exercise their religion, great numbers fled into the deserts—principally of Egypt—either to give themselves entirely to God, or to escape the fierce pains of the tortures prepared for those Christians who were taken before the judges. These settlers in the desert were the hermits. The most famous was St. Paul of Thebes, the first hermit. He retired into the desert when very young, in the year A.D. 249. For nearly a hundred years he was fed by a raven which brought him half a loaf daily. Just before his death he was discovered by St. Antony, the patriarch of monks. This saint had also been a hermit, but so many came to him for help and guidance that a town of solitaries grew up around him. About the same time many other towns and villages of hermits were thus commenced. Such a community was called a "Laura." It consisted of hundreds of little cells at some distance from each other, but not very far from a church where all could meet for Holy Mass.

A little later, instead of having separate cells at a distance from one another, the hermits formed into communities, living together under a Superior. Thus was commenced religious life as we see it now. The Thebaid, or Upper Valley of the Nile, was the home of these monks and nuns. The men lived in monasteries, the women in convents, following a settled rule of life. The first rule was drawn up by St. Pachomius. The religious spent a great deal of their time in prayer and in hard work. They observed strict poverty, both as to food and clothing, but they strove chiefly to excel in obedience and charity. Before St. Pachomius died, seven thousand monks acknowledged him as their superior.

The movement which had commenced in Africa soon spread into other parts of the Church. St. Hilarion introduced it into the East. St. Ambrose, St. Augustine, and St. Jerome all founded convents or monasteries. It was St. Basil who gave the final perfection to religious congregations by causing the members to take vows with the sanction of the bishop. In France St. Martin of Tours was the great apostle of religious life. His rule was carried into Ireland by St. Patrick.