Cross of the Coliseum. Rome
Cross of the Coliseum. Rome
The Coliseum. Rome
The Coliseum. Rome


To the two enemies already indicated in the section of Christianity (Roman emperors and pagan philosophers) the heretics came together from the beginning. Like against those, Christianity had to fight against these. This fight was particularly dangerous because they were internal enemies.

Already in the time of the Apostles the first deviations of the orthodox doctrine were presented. For this reason the Church manifested from the beginning the purity of its doctrine against error. Naturally, the doctrine taught by the Apostles forms the basis of the development of Catholic theology and those who disagreed with it declared themselves separated from the Church. From the beginning, a distinction was made between heresy and schism. The first involved dogmatic error against what was expressly declared by the Church. The second meant only insubordination against the supreme authority. The teaching of the Apostles is mainly contained in the four Gospels and in the other canonical books of the New Testament. The main heresies in Roman Christianity were the following:

EBIONISM (1st century)

Judeo-Christian sect that rejected the divinity of Christ and his virgin birth, which kept the Saturday (Sabbath) and Sunday, considered St. Paul an apostate and only recognized the Gospel of St. Matthew. They followed the precepts of Jewish law as circumcision. Its last followers disappeared around the 5th century.

DOCETISM (1st century)

They denied the incarnation of Christ and therefore that he had been crucified since his body was only apparent and not real. Therefore, they contradicted the dogmas of incarnation and redemption. These docetic ideas got to survive in other heretical currents in isolated communities well into the Middle Ages.

GNOSTICISM (2nd century)

Gnosticism and its various manifestations and ramifications were undoubtedly the most dangerous enemy of Christianity. The reason for the danger was that it presented itself with a garment of science and high speculation and that it had a series of men of great talent who pretended to represent the true divine and human science. Its distinctive features are:

1.- The basic point of the various Gnostic systems is the eternal opposition between the transcendental God and the formless matter, conceived as the origin of evil. Hence the dualism.

2.- The theory of the eons or intermediaries between the supreme Being and the world.

3.- Explanation of the problem of evil, which is reduced to the rebellion of one of the ons, the demiurge.

4.- The way of working the Redemption, which consists in the liberation of the emanations of the supreme Being enclosed in matter. This is the work of another aeon, called Christ.

5.- Division of men into gnostics, psychics and hylics (meaning: compounds of matter).

6.- Aberrations in the moral, coming from the fateful division of the castes.

7.- Finally the immense appreciation of the inspiration itself.

Temple of Diana. Merida
Temple of Diana. Merida

Against the first manifestations the Apostles Peter, Paul and John opposed them in their writings. In addition, St. Ignatius of Antioch, St. Polycarp and St. Justin also wrote against the new heresies.

In 1945 a library of manuscripts in Coptic language (translated directly from originals in Greek during the year 367 AD by monks) were discovered in Chenoboskion, current Nag Hammadi (Egypt), including the Gnostic Gospels of Thomas, Philip and Valentine, thus allowing a better knowledge of their ideas.


When the Gnostic movement began to decline, another one of a diverse nature began in the East, which, coming out of the bowels of Christianity themselves, constituted a great danger to it. The character of the new sect was completely different from the Gnostics, since while they were based on many principles alien to Christianity, the Montanists sought to represent the quintessence of the Catholic Church. However, the final result was identical: opposition to Catholic doctrines. The second movement, millenarism, managed to interest many in those circumstances.

The montanism:

Montanus appeared in Phrygia around the year 172 and began to prophesy announcing that the world was going to end soon, which fanatized many people. His ideas excited people to rigorous penance. Montanus presented himself as the Paraclete Spirit, pretending to prove, with his ecstasies and immediate inspiration from heaven and with his rigor of manners, that it was the primitive doctrine of the Church. Montanus was joined by two women: Prisca and Maximilla, who achieved even greater fame than their predecessor.

The millenarism:

This doctrine consists in the hope that at the end of the world, Christ, after defeating the antichrist, will appear bodily and establish on earth a thousand year reign along with all the righteous resurrected. After these thousand years of triumph the resurrection will take place.

Aqueduct of Pont du Gard
Aqueduct of Pont du Gard
Streets of Ostia
Streets of Ostia


To the aforementioned heresies were added these new ones of a more speculative nature, but which attacked the fundamental tenets of Christianity: the divinity of Jesus Christ and the Holy Trinity.

The adoptionism:

At the end of the second century, Theodotus of Byzantium, a scholarly man, apostatized in persecutions, but then he repented and went to Rome. There he defended the doctrine that Christ was only a man but elevated with a certain superior virtue. He supported this in texts of Sacred Scripture. Around 190 he was excommunicated by Pope Victor, but he continued making proselytes, with whom he organized a Christian community in Rome. His disciples and especially Theodotus the younger, gave a more ecclesiastical form to this doctrine.

The monarchianism:

More importance reached this heresy. It admitted the divinity of Christ and the unity of the divinity, but it erred in the way of reconciling these dogmas. They started from the basis of the unity of God. As, on the other hand, they defended the divinity of Christ and did not conceive the unity of God with the distinction of persons, they affirmed that Christ was not but the same Father, with a special form or modality. Therefore, the Father with the Son mode was the one who suffered on Calvary, etc.

NICOLAISM (2nd century)

Its greater implantation occurred in Ephesus and Pergamon, and its name means “followers of Nicolas”. This sect represented the moral deviation: lack of values, free release of passions and sexual disorders. Some scholars believe that they were contrary to any authority or norm.

MARCIONISM (2nd century)

Basically they believed that there was a bad God: the Old Testament one, and a good one: the New Testament one. Its founder, Marcion, had the innovative idea of separating a New Testament from the Old from fragmented texts, which influenced Christians to establish an official New Testament.

MODALISM (3rd century)

They did not respect the distinction of persons (antitrinitarians). They defended the existence of a single God but manifested in a different way. There is no trinity in God, but “monarchy”, an idea by which it is associated with monarchianism. It became extinct in the 5th century.

Theatre of Pompeii
Theatre of Pompeii
The Forum of Pompeii and Vesuvius
The Forum of Pompeii and Vesuvius

MANICHAEISM (3rd century)

It was founded by the Persian Mani who considered himself the last of the prophets. They were dualistic like the Gnostics and believed that the spirit of man is of God, but the body of man is of the devil. There were phenomena of doctrinal fusion with Zoroastrianism, Christianity, Buddhism and Islam, and this current survived until the seventeenth century in China. Many scholars consider Catharism and Bogomilism as Manichaen root heresies.

DONATISM (4th century)

Emerged in Numidia and initiated by Donatus, bishop of Carthage, it taught that it was the sanctity of the minister that made the sacrament valid and that sinners could not be part of the Church.

The Church rejected this doctrine arguing that once the priestly power is transmitted to a man through the sacrament of Holy Order, the administered sacraments are fully valid through divine intercession, whatever the cleric’s morality may be.

MACEDONIANISM (4th century)

In the heat of the theological disputes against Arianism, it was initiated in Constantinople by Macedonius, its bishop. This heresy denied the divinity of the Holy Spirit. They claimed that there was a hierarchy in the Trinity: the Son was inferior to the Father and the Holy Spirit was inferior to both. Heresy condemned at the Council of Constantinople.

Council of Nicea. Byzantine fresco in Myra. Turkey
Council of Nicea. Byzantine fresco in Myra. Turkey

ARIANISM (4th century)

It defended that there is only one God, eternal and incommunicable. The Word, Christ, is not eternal, but created from nothing, therefore a true creature, more excellent than the others, but not consubstantial with the Father. Therefore, it is not God. Arianism was condemned in a local Council in the year 320. Nevertheless, the heresy managed to expand and a crisis of great proportion was generated and the emperor Constantine was needed to summon the Council of Nicea (first Ecumenical Council of the Church). Arianism was condemned there and important leaders emerged to confront it as St. Athanasius. Arianism would take new momentum when Arius is rehabilitated from exile and receives the support of Constantius II (son of Constantine), who was of Arian ideas. Constantius II and Constans, his brother, who ruled East and West, met at the Council of Sardica in 343, in which they restored St. Athanasius from exile and deposed many Arian bishops. After the death of Constans, remaining the only authority in Constantius II, the Arians gained strength but were finally defeated at the Council of Constantinople. It can be said that Arianism disappeared in the sixth century.


APOLLINARISM (4th century)

Apollinaris of Loadicea
Apollinaris of Loadicea

Founded by Apollinaris of Laodicea, it arose as a reaction against Arianism. It taught that Christ was not only God, but at the same time he was not a man, but an intermediate being. That is, when the Word assumed human nature it replaced the human soul, so if Christ did not have a human soul he was not really human. Thus, Christ was a being product of the union between the Father, the Son, and a mortal body. This heresy was also condemned by the Council of Constantinople and at the beginning of the fifth century its followers either accepted the faith of the Church or went on to Monophysitism.

NESTORIANISM (5th century)

Nestorius was born in Alexandria and as bishop of Constantinople he began to preach his doctrine by confronting the Bishop of Alexandria: Cyril. It taught that the son of the Virgin Mary is not the Son of God. In Christ there are two natures as two different persons. Among people there is no substantial union but merely accidental or moral. The man in Christ is not God, but his bearer. The Virgin Mary can only be designated as the mother of Christ, not as the mother of God.


PELAGIANISM (5th century)


It arose from the postulates of the Briton monk Pelagius, who initially gained a certain prestige in the Roman Curia and was even admired by St. Augustine of Hippo, who was later one of his most bitter theological enemies. After the sack of Rome by Alaric in the year 410, both coincided in Carthage.

Pelagius and his followers who attacked the relaxation of the Roman clergy argued that Adam would have died even if he had not sinned. This only hurt him and his descendants only received bad example. The children before Baptism are like Adam before the fall. Humanity does not die for the sin of Adam or be resurrected for the redemption of Christ. Adam’s sin only affected him and his offspring are born free of guilt. Pelagius’s ideas in favour of free will and the denial of original sin confronted St. Augustine.

MONOPHYSITISM (5th century)

Heresy initiated by a monk of Constantinople: Eutyches, and therefore also known as Eutychianism. Adversary of Nestorius, he argues that in Jesus there is only one nature, the divine, but not the human. Catholic theologians consider that in the impetus to attack Nestorianism ends up denying what it wanted to defend.

MONOENERGISM (7th century)

A softened form of Monophysitism that affirmed that in Christ there was a single energy or operation, a mixture of the divine and human. Proposed by the Patriarch Cyrus as a base in accordance with the Monophysite heresy it was abandoned by the opposition received, but served as the starting point for the Monothelite current.

MONOTHELITISM (7th century)

It was essentially a modification of the monophysitism propagated in the Catholic Church in the attempt to reconcile its followers with Trinitarian Christianity. It admitted two natures in Christ: the human and the divine and affirmed that in Christ there was only one will. Finally the Catholic doctrine of the two wills was established in the third council of Constantinople and this doctrine was condemned as heretical, decades after being promoted by the patriarch Sergius I at the time when the East capital itself was in grave danger being besieged by the Avars allies of Persia, and defended by himself in the absence of the Emperor Heraclius I.

Author: Eduardo Ortiz Pardina

Collaborator: Valentín Ortiz Juez