Error In The Early Church

Keith Bintley, Bishops Stortford, England [SEE PROFILE BELOW]

Part 3 of 5 of the series Early Church History

Category: History

Precious Seed

How can a study of ancient theological battles possibly be of use to me in my Christian life in the twenty-first century? After all these things must be long dead and buried, and even if they aren’t, why fill our minds with dangerous notions?

There is certainly some truth in these statements, but error, or heresy, has a nasty habit of staying around. You may recall how the sin of Jeroboam I, 2 Kgs. 3. 3, ensnared Israel for centuries. Error has also been the anvil upon which truth has been beaten out to the blessing of the church. Finally, new error has a curious habit of being old error in disguise. To illustrate this, I have listed the errors rather than their unfamiliar (and therefore often forget other) names.


The Gnostics, (Greek for ‘knowledge’), rose to prominence in the second century and taught that all physical matter was basically evil. Matter had been created, not by the supreme spiritual God, but by an inferior god called Demiurge (Greek for 'architect'). This was the God of the Old Testament, which therefore must be an evil and unspiritual book. Elements of this thinking can still be witnessed today in eastern religions that seek to escape into a higher state of spiritual experience irrespective of material concerns. Echoes of this attitude are also heard today from 'liberal' theologians who are embarrassed by Old Testament teaching and practices, such as divine judgement and sacrifices.

This approach overlooks many Scriptures, not least the Creator’s ringing approbation, 'very good', in Genesis 1, or the Son’s status as Creator in Hebrews 1. 10. While it is true that in Scripture we find an unfolding revelation culminating in Christ, Heb. 1. 2, we also discover God has an eternal and unchanging nature, Exod. 1. 14, and planned redemption, 2 Cor. 5. 18. Echoes of this ‘Gnostic’ controversy can be seen in the apostle John’s first letter. This movement's proponents claimed to be sinless, 1. 8, 10; and that Jesus Christ did not come in physical form, 2. 22; 5. 1, 5, 6. Finally, understanding the Old Testament revelation of God’s character and sacrificial system is essential to understanding the cross of Christ, e.g. Heb. 9-10.


Clearly some of the errors, (or heresies) which abounded in the early church were incompatible with the Scriptures we have today. The Gnostics were however happy to adopt those Christian books that appealed to them. John’s Gospel was a favourite with its emphasis upon the spiritual. The most prominent teacher with this approach was Marcion, (d. AD160), who by the time of his death presided over an empire-wide alternative church. He refined elements of the New Testament and threw out anything which smacked of Jewishness and believed that only the apostle Paul really understood Jesus. This attitude re-emerged in eighteenth century Higher Criticism, (today known as 'Historical Criticism'), when large parts of the Bible were rejected. Tragically, this left many hitherto Bible-believing Christians cold and empty and not knowing what to believe, if anything.

We are not at liberty to decide what constitutes Scripture; divine revelation not human rationale is the source of the Canon, (the body of inspired writings,). However unpalatable to our fallen nature Scripture’s teachings are, they are all ‘breathed out’ by God, 2 Tim. 3. 16 ESV through men ‘carried along’ by the Spirit 2 Pet. 1. 2 ESV. The Lord may have graciously preserved us from such error, but can I ask how authoritative is Scripture in our lives, or do we also pick and choose which parts we obey?  


In AD318, an Alexandrian preacher Arius, (AD256-336) declared that only the Father was truly God. Christ or the Logos, (Greek for ‘word’) was only a created being, albeit the first and greatest that God had created. This view sprang partly from a reaction against Origen’s teaching that there were degrees of divinity within the Godhead, with the Father being the most divine. The heresy quickly spread throughout the Eastern Church. Anxious to ensure the church as it was in his day, and hence Empire, remained intact, Emperor Constantine convened a Council of 300 bishops in Nicaea in AD325. A creed was eventually drafted which left no doubt that the Son possessed the same nature and being as the Father. Only Arius and two supporters refused to sign, and Constantine conveniently transported them into exile. That of course did not finish the arguments (force rarely does), as it sparked off further debates as to the precise nature of Christ. Gregory, Bishop of Nyssa gave us a flavour of the fervent interest in doctrine amongst the general populace when he wrote:

'If you ask a person to give you some small change for a large coin, his response is –”What distinguishes the Father from the Son is that He is not begotten”. If you go into a shop to buy a loaf, the shopkeeper solemnly informs you that, “the Father is greater than the Son”. If you ask your servant whether the water is hot enough for a bath, you have to be satisfied with your assurance that “the Son has been generated out of nothing”'.

Of course the Arian controversy did not die out in the first century and is alive in the ‘Watchtower’ movement of our day. With the benefit of early church debate we can see that the deity and equality of Christ is taught in John 1.1; 1.18; 10. 30; 14. 9; 1 Tim. 3. 16; Heb. 1. 3; and 1 John 5. 20.


The Arian controversy failed to answer all the questions of Christ’s nature. How could Jesus Christ be both man and God at the same time? How could the Almighty be weak or limited? Unsurprisingly two camps formed, the A n t i o c h e n e s ( f rom Antioch) emphasized Christ’s two natures, human and divine. The Alexandrians (from Alexandria) heavily emphasized Christ’s divinity – His humanity was just a ‘tool’.

After a great deal of political intrigue, Emperor Marcian, who became Emperor in AD450-57, summoned a fresh Council at Chalcedon at which 400 bishops attended. They thrashed out a creed which expresses a Biblical appreciation of Christ as follows;

'Christ, Son, Lord, Only begotten, to be acknowledged in two natures, without confusion, without change, without division, without separation; the distinction of the natures being in no way abolished because of the union, but rather the characteristic property of each nature being preserved, and coming together to form one person and one hypostasis. He is not split or divided into two persons'.2

It would therefore be quite wrong to say, as we sometimes hear preachers say, 'the human part of Jesus . . . '. I hope you appreciate why!


During the second century a young convert of Phyrgia called Montanus started to prophesy along with two prophetesses, believing that the Spirit was speaking to them afresh. To them the mainstream church appeared rather stale and formal. This movement was commendable in its earnestness and godly living. Second marriages were banned, persecution and martyrdom were accepted, virgins were veiled and fasting was frequent. As the movement gathered momentum and the expectation of the Lord’s return grew, so did other phenomena such as visions, speaking in unknown tongues and words of prophesy and comfort spoken without preparation or reference to the word of God. Modern day charismatic Pentecostals, by and large, like to trace their origins back to this era.

The established church was perplexed, for by the second century the common consent was that the miraculous had all but ebbed away. The historic church did not accept the movement and the decision was not just a rejection of apparent vitality. Their reasons were that there was an excess in behaviour; there was no biblical warrant for a further outpouring of the Spirit after Pentecost; many prophesies did not come true; other Christians were condemned as ‘unspiritual’; and doctrinal error began to creep in as a result of these practises.


Church history is littered with the debris of error and controversy and we are not spared from, ‘perilous times’ which ‘shall come’, 2 Tim. 3. 1. We need to pray that God will enable alert elders to 'give instruction in sound doctrine and also to rebuke those who contradict it', Titus 1. 9 ESV. And like the good people of Nyssa we should all be actively concerned with holding good doctrine, 1 Tim. 4. 13-14.


1. Scripture quotations marked ESV are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version 2001, used by permission. All rights reserved.
2. N. R. Needham, 2000 Years of Christ’s Power, London, Grace publications, 1997.

AUTHOR PROFILE: Keith Bintley is an elder in the Bishops Stortford assembly and has responsibility for the youth work there. Married with three children he is a director of a legel costs business.