Christian Heresies and Schisms in the First Five Centuries

Below are some of the specific heresies in the first five centuries since Christ, and also the response of the Early Church Fathers. Ironically, much of Christian doctrine in the Early Church was developed to refute early heresies.

  FounderDatesName of MovementType of Heresy
Simon Magus1st century Gnostic
Valentinus2nd century Gnostic
Marcionc. 85-c. 160 A.D. Gnostic
Montanusc. 156 A.D. Schismatic
Mani216 – 276 A.D.ManichaeismGnostic
Donatusc. 314 A.D. Schismatic
Ariusc. 250 – 336 A.D.ArianismSchismatic
Pelagiusdied 418? A.D.PelagianismSchismatic
Nestoriusdied 440? A.D.Nestorianism 

Simon Magus

Several of the Early Church Fathers, including Iranaeus, Hippolytus, and Justin Martyr believed that Christian Gnosticism started with Simon Magus (see Acts 8:9-24). The quote below is from Iranaeus’ Against Heresy:
“Simon the Samaritan was that magician of whom Luke, the disciple and follower of the apostles, [spoke]…Such was his procedure in the reign of Claudius Caesar, by whom also he is said to have been honored with a statue, on account of his magical power. This man, then, was glorified by many as if he were a God; and he taught that it was himself who appeared among the Jews as the Son…Now this Simon of Samaria, from whom all sorts of heresies derive their origin…” (Irenaeus, Against Heresies, Chapter 23)

Valentinian Gnosticism

“…Valentinus, who adapted the principles of the heresy called “Gnostic” to the peculiar character of his own school…” (Irenaeus, Against Heresies, Book 1, Chapter 11)

One of the most influential of the early “Christian” Gnostics was Valentinus (c. 137), who established schools in Egypt, Cyprus and Rome. His teachings were later spread by his student Ptolamaeus. According to Tertullian, Valentinus was denied the sought-after post of Bishop, and then turned against the established church:
“Valentinus had expected to become a bishop, because he was an able man both in genius and eloquence. Being indignant, however, that another obtained the dignity…he broke with the church of the true faith. Just like those (restless) spirits which, when roused by ambition, are usually inflamed with the desire of revenge, he applied himself with all his might to exterminate the truth; and finding the clue of a certain old opinion, he marked out a path for himself with the subtlety of a serpent. Ptolemaeus afterwards entered on the same path…” (Tertullian, Against the Valentinians)
It would be difficult to describe the complicated theology of Valentinus in a short space, so we will suffice to describe some of the main characteristics of his Gnostic views:

  • The physical Universe was created on account of an error of Sophia (“Wisdom”).  The Creator-God (the Old Testament God) created the evil material world.
  • The Eternal Being produced emanations in the universe; as the distance between the emanations and the Eternal Being increased, knowledge of him lessened (this was to explain why evil could exist in the cosmos)
  •  The aim of Gnostics was to escape the bodily prison, and return to the Eternal Being (“The redemption of the inner spiritual man”)
  • Christ the redeemer shows the way back to the Eternal Being (through gnosis)
  • Jesus was pure spirit (Docetism).  If matter is impure, God could not become incarnate.
  • Valentinus believed that redemption is pre-ordained, and that only those towards the top of a hierarchy of mankind/cosmos would be redeemed:
  • Pneumatics – the Gnostic initiates; the elect
  • Psyche – ordinary church members, with no gnosis
  • Choics – the majority of people with no hope of salvation


“Marcion expressly and openly used the knife, not the pen, since he made such an excision of the Scriptures as suited his own subject-matter.” (Tertullian, Prescription Against Heretics”)

Marcion (c. 85 – c. 160 A.D.) was a Gnostic ship owner, who believed that there were two Gods in the universe (dualism) – the God depicted in the Old Testament, and the God represented by Jesus in the New Testament. He believed that the God of Goodness took pity on man and sent his Son to rescue him from the evil god. He believed also that Jesus was a spirit (docetism) and did not appear in the flesh. As such, he rejected the infancy narratives about Jesus, as well as the crucifixion and resurrection. On this topic, Tertullian wrote:

“…it was that Marcion actually chose to believe that He was a phantom, denying to Him the reality of a perfect body. Now, not even to His apostles was His nature ever a matter of deception. He was truly both seen and heard upon the mount; true and real was the draught of that wine at the marriage of (Cana in) Galilee; true and real also was the touch of the then believing Thomas…” (Tertullian, A Treatise on the Soul)

To accommodate these (and other) Gnostic beliefs, Marcion created a list of books that he considered authoritative. These included a condensed version of the Gospel of Luke (lacking the Nativity and Resurrection scenes), and 10 of Paul’s letters.

While the gnostic theology of Marcion was roundly condemned by the Early Church Fathers (such as Tertullian above), his list was the first known attempt at defining a New Testament canon, and it prodded the Early Church Fathers to give greater consideration to those books that should be considered authoritative.

Marcion was excommunicated in 144 A.D., and his sect died out by the end of the 3rd century. According to Tertullian, Marcion attempted to reconcile himself to the church before his death:

“Afterwards, it is true, Marcion professed repentance, and agreed to the conditions granted to him — that he should receive reconciliation if he restored to the church all the others whom he had been training for perdition: he was prevented, however, by death”. (Tertullian, The Prescription Against Heretics)

Response of the Church to 2nd Century Gnosticism

The response of the established church to early “Christian” Gnosticism was to solidify a creed, or basic statement of beliefs, that was in marked contrast to Gnostic beliefs. The resulting Apostles Creed came out of the 2nd century church, starting out as a baptismal liturgy, and eventually became the standard statement of Christian belief. In the chart below, notice the Gnostic ideas that are refuted by the Creed:

Apostles CreedGnostic Idea Refuted
I believe in God the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earthONE God, not two; God made material as well as heavenly things
Born of the virgin MaryJesus was NOT just a spirit
Suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead and buriedChrist was a real person, who existed in historical time
I believe…in the resurrection of the bodyMaterial things are not innately evil (see also Gen 1:31)

Also, in the aforementioned books written against heresy by Early Church Fathers such as Irenaeus, Tertullian, Justyn Martyr, etc., other key points were made that rejected heresy, such as:

  • There was no hidden teaching in Christianity, or else the Apostles would have passed it on to their successors in the churches (Irenaeus himself was in a direct line of succession from John the Apostle, through St. Polycarp)
  • The New Testament and Apostolic Tradition constitutes the faith of Christianity (Luther and Calvin would later disagree with the latter)

Montanist Heresy

Around c. 156 A.D., a self-styled prophet named Montanus started to attract followers in Phrygia, Asia Minor. Montanus wasn’t a heretic in the sense of the Gnostics, but he did preach a doctrine that conceivably could have been threatening to the established church. Among the characteristics of Montanism:

Like the followers of Peter Waldo and St. Francis in the Middle Ages, Montanus wanted a return to simpler church, as well as a more ascetic focus for believers (fasting, celibacy, separation from the world)

  • Like the later Protestant Reformers, he questioned the authority of church hierarchy, and believed that the Word of God was the only true authority, revealed through the prophets
  • He fostered a very charismatic environment, and believed that the Holy Spirit spoke directly through him, and his followers

So what was the problem, as far as the established church was concerned? The main issue seemed to be about the fact that the Montanists believed that they were receiving Divine Revelation, like the Old Testament prophets. Some of the bishops of the time (such as Serapion, bishop of Antioch) were concerned that such prophesizing might be viewed on the same level as Holy Scripture – and could interfere with people’s understanding of the core message of the Scriptures.

Around c. 190 A.D., Montanus was excommunicated, but his movement (which included Tertullian at one point) forced the established church to examine the role of the Holy Spirit in the contemporary church. In time, the response of church was that revelation ended with the Apostolic Age. Those with the gift of prophesy after the Apostolic Age were simply explaining the already existing Word of God – not adding to it.
The sect had pretty much died out by end of 4th century, although there is some evidence that it still existed in small pockets as late as the 8th century.

Origen: On the Borderline

Origen (185? – 254? A.D.), an Early Church Father, was Presbyter of Alexandria. And yet some of his theological views were condemned by Church councils (400, 543 A.D.), hundreds of years after his death. Among his views and/or his much later Origenist followers:

  • Jesus is divine, but subordinate to the Father (John 14:28).  (This view would later be mirrored by Arius in the 4th century, and lead to the creation of the Nicene Creed as a counter measure.)  Because of this view, he thought that prayer should only be offered to the Father.
  • Every human soul has existed eternally – and bodily existence is a result of pre-bodily sin
  • All souls would ultimately be saved


Manichaeism was one of the most influential Gnostic movements of the first several centuries A.D., and it survived well into the Middle Ages in one form or another. Its Persian founder Mani (216? – 276 A.D.) created a religion that was a curious blend of Gnosticism, Christianity, and the teachings of Persian Magi. Among the characteristics of Manichaeism:

  • All religions are equally valid
  • Dualist – two cosmic kingdoms, which included a Kingdom of Light (the Primal God) and the Kingdom of Darkness (Satan)
  • Accepted as prophets: Adam, Noah, Abraham, Zoroaster, Buddha, Jesus, Paul, Mani
  • Docetic – Christ was “a divine being clothed in the semblance of man”
  • Had five grades or levels of believers (similar to the three of Valentius)
  • Believed in cycles of life (reincarnation)
  • Preached strict asceticism

The most famous convert to Manichaeism was St. Augustine, who repudiated Manichaeism in 384 A.D., and later stated:

“THROUGH the assisting mercy of God, the snares of the Manichaeans having been broken to pieces and left behind, having been restored at length to the bosom of the Catholic Church, I am disposed now at least to consider and to deplore my recent wretchedness. For there were many things that I ought to have done to prevent the seeds of the most true religion wholesomely implanted in me from boyhood, from being banished from my mind, having been uprooted by the error and fraud of false and deceitful men.” (St. Augustin, On Two Souls, Against the Manichaeans, translated by Albert H. Newman, D.D., Ll.D.)

There is some evidence that Manichaeism thought survived well into the Middle Ages, where it ran afoul of the Inquisition in the 13th century. The target of the Inquisition was a group of people known as Cathars (also known as the Albigensians), which comes from the Greek word katharoi, meaning pure.

The Cathars

Like their Gnostic forebears, the Cathars were dualists – they believed that there were two creator Gods – a pure God that created the heavens and things spiritual, and an Evil God that created all things physical and temporal. They generally associated the Evil God with the God of the Old Testament.

They were also docetists – they believed that Jesus was a spirit, not a flesh and blood human being. Thus, they rejected the doctrine of the death of Jesus on the cross, and His subsequent resurrection. They also seem to have adopted the views of the 4th century Presbyter of Alexandria Arius (see upcoming section) that stated that Jesus, while an exalted being, is not on the same level as the Father. The Cathars seem to have believed in reincarnation, as they viewed that the souls of men are trapped in evil physical bodies, and are released only after multiple iterations.

The Cathars were considered such a threat to the established church in the Middle Ages that both a Crusade and the Papal Inquisition were launched against them. The Albigensian Crusade (so named, because the French city of Albi was a Cathar stronghold) was launched against the Cathars in Southern France in 1209 by Pope Innocent III. The Crusade lasted for 20 years, and was marked by astonishing violence, the most famous example being on July 22, 1209, when the city of Beziers was sacked, with over 20,000 men, women and children killed by crusaders. Those Cathars that survived the Crusade were wiped out in the Papal Inquisition that followed in 1227, capped by the burning of 215 Cathar leaders at the Castle of Montsegur in 1244. The Cathars were, for all intents and purposes, extinct by the beginning of the 14th century.


The roots of the Donatist schism date back to the 3rd century. In c. 250 A.D., Roman Emperor Decius ordered the persecution of Christians. As a result of this persecution, the Bishop of Rome Fabianus was murdered, and Church Father Origen was jailed. Many Christians (including some priests and bishops) committed apostasy – denying Christ to save themselves from persecution. After the persecutions ebbed in 251 A.D., the question was asked “Should priests that committed apostasy be allowed back into the church?”

Roman churchman Novatian (c. 200–258 A.D.) argued against admitting those that committed apostasy back into the church. After losing the election to fill the vacant position of Bishop of Rome in 251 A.D., Novatian and his followers split away from the Catholic Church. Among their views:

  • Priests who had apostatized in the face of Roman persecution should not be allowed to dispense the sacraments
  • Sacraments administered by the unworthy were invalid
  • A holy church could not contain unholy members

By 254 A.D., however, when it was clear that Novatian was not receiving support from outside his circle of followers, many of the followers of Novatian had fled, or desired (re)entry into the Catholic Church. This led the established church to have to confront the issue of whether those that had been baptized by Novatianists could be accepted into the Catholic Church without being rebaptized.

A great debate was waged between Bishop (254-56 A.D.) Stephen of Rome and Cyprian of Carthage (c. 195–258 A.D.), who argued that baptisms given by schismatics were not real baptisms at all. Stephen, whose view ultimately prevailed noted that baptism belongs to Christ, not the church, and the standing of the baptizer is not the relevant issue.

A similar situation arose in the early fourth century. Emperor Diocletian had ordered the persecution of Christians throughout the empire (303 – 306 A.D.), and many Christians (including some bishops and priests) had committed apostasy. After Constantine came into power, the question of the mid-third century remained – what to do about those that had committed apostasy? The situation boiled over at Carthage in 311 A.D. when an archdeacon named Caecilianus was ordained by a bishop that was suspected of having committed apostasy during the Diocletian persecution. In retaliation, the Donatists set up a rival Bishop of Carthage (Majorinus in 311 A.D.; Donatus in 315 A.D.).

In time, the Donatists became a schismatic sect, claiming that they were the only true Christians. The Donatists refused to accept baptisms performed in the Catholic Church, claiming they were invalid. The Donatists also insisted that a baptism performed by an “impure” priest was not valid.

While Donatism was condemned at the Council of Arles in 314 A.D., it continued to flourish. Beginning in 393 A.D., St. Augustine, the great theologian of the early Catholic Church, turned his skills of eloquence and logic against the Donatists. Augustine argued (like Bishop Stephen before him) that baptism is of Christ, not of the baptizer. Therefore, “reformed” Donatists that wished to return to the Mother Church did not need to be rebaptized. Among Augustine’s many statements on the topic:

“It is true that Christ’s baptism is holy; and although it may exist among heretics or schismatics, yet it does not belong to the heresy or schism; and therefore even those who come from thence to the Catholic Church herself ought not to be baptized afresh.” (The Seven Books Of Augustin, Bishop Of Hippo, On Baptism, Against The Donatists, p. 780)

The Donatists were banished by emperor Honorius in 412 A.D., and completely disappeared by end of 7th century.


The great theological debates of the 2nd century centered on exactly who Christ was, and what manner of being he was. In the early 4th century, the debate switched to what the relationship was between Christ and God the Father. Some church officials, such as a presbyter in Alexandria named Arius (c. 250 – 336 A.D.) argued that Jesus was divine, but on a lower level then the Father. Arius started with this premise:

“One God, alone unbegotten, alone everlasting, alone unbegun, alone true, alone having immortality, alone wise, alone good, alone sovereign.”

From this starting point, Arius ended up with the view that Christ was an intermediary distinct from the Father (or that there was a difference of substance (homoiousia), or essential being between the Father and the Son.)
On the other side of the issue was Athanasius, (c. 296-373 A.D.), later Bishop of Alexandria, who argued that the Word (John 1:1-18) became man – the Word did not come into a man. Thus, Christ is fully God and fully man.

High Noon occurred in 325 A.D. when Constantine, emperor of the Roman Empire ordered that the debate be settled once and for all. A great church council was ordered, and it took place at Nicea (in Bithynia). Arius lost the debate, and the view of Athanasius became the view of the church. The doctrine of homoousios was affirmed – that Christ was of one (or the same) substance with the Father. Out of the Council came the Nicene Creed – one of the two Creeds recognized by almost all of Christianity today. The original version (it was expanded in 381 A.D.) stated:

“We believe in one God, the Father Almighty, maker of all things both visible and invisible; and in one Lord, Jesus Christ, the Son of God, Only begotten of the Father, that is to say, of the substance of the Father, God of God and Light of Light, very God of very God, begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father, by whom all things were made, both things in heaven and things on earth; who, for us men and for our salvation, came down and was made flesh, was made man, suffered, and rose again on the third day, went up into the heavens, and is to come again to judge both the quick and the dead; and in the Holy Ghost.”  (emphasis added)

Arianism was perhaps the greatest threat to the Early Church out of all the schisms and heresies. By some estimates, almost half of all Christians were Arians at its peak in the 4th century. Although condemned by the Council of Nicea in 325 A.D., it didn’t die out completely until the 8th century. However, there are still groups today (such as the Unitarians) who, like Arius, reject Trinitarianism.


Two more heresies/schisms would appear in the post-Nicene period – not everything was settled at the Council of Nicea. One of these heresies was promulgated by a monk named Pelagius.

Pelagius (c. 354 A.D. – after 418) was a British Monk who was horrified by the seeming lack of piety and purity practiced by Christians in Rome c. 380 A.D. He felt that the laxness of Roman Christians grew partly from the prevailing doctrine of Grace, which stated that humans on their own are incapable of purity, and can only be saved by God’s grace.

Pelagius and his followers (one student named Coelestius was especially influential) denied predestination, original sin, and the doctrine of Grace, maintaining the humans are not tainted by the sin of Adam and Eve, and that babies are born pure. As a result, humans have the free will to choose to live sinless lives. (In his somewhat confused theology, though, Pelagius still maintained that babies needed to be baptized.)

The main opponent to Pelagianism was St. Augustine of Hippo (who also combated the Donatists). Augustine wrote at least thirteen works and letters against Pelagius, and firmly entrenched in Catholic theology the doctrines of:

  • Salvation through Grace
  • Original Sin
  • The necessity of baptism for salvation
  • The damnation of unbaptized infants

Among Augustine’s writings about Pelagius:

“A NECESSITY arose which compelled me to write against the new heresy of Pelagius. Our previous opposition to it was confined to sermons and conversations, as occasion suggested, and according to our respective abilities and duties; but it had not yet assumed the shape of a controversy in writing. Certain questions were then submitted to me [by our brethren] at Carthage, to which I was to send them back answers in writings: I accordingly wrote first of all three books, under the title, “On the Merits and Forgiveness of Sins,” in which I mainly discussed the baptism of infants because of original sin, and the grace of God by which we are justified, that is, made righteous; but [I remarked] no man in this life can so keep the commandments which prescribe holiness of life, as to be beyond the necessity of using this prayer for his sins: “Forgive us our trespasses.” It is in direct opposition to these principles that they have devised their new heresy.” (St. Augustine, A Treatise On the Merits and Forgiveness Of Sins and On the Baptism Of Infants)

Pelagius was excommunicated in 418 A.D. Pelagianism was declared heretical at Council of Ephesus (431 A.D.).


The final schism/heresy that we’ll examine in this study is Nestorianism. It was founded by two men – Theodoren (d. 428 A.D.; Bishop of Mopsuesta, 392 A.D.) and its namesake Nestorius (d. 440? A.D.; Patriarch of Constantinople, 428 A.D.). Among the arguments of Nestorianism:

 There were two separate natures in Christ.  Christ was a “Man who became God” rather than “God who became Man”.  As such, Jesus of Nazareth and the Word were united.

  • Therefore, Mary was not the “Mother of God”
  • Tended to view Christ as a prophet and teacher, inspired by an indwelling logos
  • Christ was the first “perfect man”

These viewpoints were declared heretical at Council of Ephesus (431 A.D.) and Council of Chalcedon (451 A.D.). The latter created a Creed which stated:

“We confess one and the same our Lord Jesus Christ, the same perfect in godhead, the same perfect in manhood, truly God and truly man, the same of rational soul and body.”

Nestorius himself was exiled to the Egyptian desert in 435 A.D., and Nestorianism diminished in popularity in the 5th century. However, there are still Nestorian churches in Iran and Iraq. And many Kurdistan Nestorians moved to San Francisco after World War I.

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