[* A condensed excerpt from “The Story of Christianity” by Justo L. Gonazlez (Harper & Row, 1984). Used with permission.]

Long before the controversies of the fourth and fifth centuries, the church had already been dealing with heresy for some time. Early on teachers arose who said they had special access to Jesus’ “real teachings.” So early on, the church had to come up with methods for discerning truth and rejecting error.

In his The Story of Christianity (Harper & Row, 1984), Justo González, a member of the faculty of the Interdenominational Theological Center in Atlanta, discusses the two most powerful heresies of the earliest church and how it responded.

Secret Knowledge

Of all the differing interpretations of Christianity, none was as dangerous, nor as close to victory, as was Gnosticism. This was a vast and amorphous movement that existed both within and outside the church.

The name Gnosticism derives from the Greek word gnosis, which means “knowledge.” According to the Gnostics, they possessed a special, mystical knowledge reserved for those with true understanding. That knowledge was the secret key to salvation.

Salvation was the main concern of the Gnostics. They concluded that all matter is evil, or at best unreal. A human being is in reality an eternal spirit that somehow has been imprisoned in a body. Since the body is a prison to the spirit, and since it misguides us as to our true nature, it is evil. Therefore the Gnostics’ final goal was to escape from the body and this material world in which we are exiled. The world is not our true home but rather an obstacle to the salvation of the spirit.

How, then, is the origin of the world and of the body to be explained? Gnosticism affirmed that originally all reality was spiritual. The supreme being had no intention of creating a material world but only a spiritual one. Thus a number of spiritual beings were generated. Gnostic teachers did not agree as to their exact number, with some systems positing 365 such spiritual beings or “eons.” In any case, one of these eons, far removed from the supreme being, fell into error and thus created the material world. According to one system, for instance, Wisdom, one of the eons, wished to produce something by herself, and the resulting “abortion” was the world. That is what the world is in Gnosticism: an abortion of the spirit and not a divine creation.

But since this world was made by a spiritual being, there are still “sparks” or “bits” of spirit in it. It is these that have been imprisoned in human bodies and must be liberated through gnosis.

In order to achieve that liberation, a spiritual messenger must come to this world to waken us from our “dream.” Our spirits are “asleep” within our bodies, being driven by the impulses and passions of the body, and someone must come from beyond to remind us who we really are and to call us to struggle against our incarceration. This messenger brings the gnosis, the secret knowledge and inspiration necessary for salvation.

Above us are the heavenly spheres, each ruled by an evil power whose aim is to impede our progress to the spiritual realm. In order to reach the spiritual “fullness,” we must break through each of those spheres. The only way to do this is to have the secret knowledge that opens the way—much like a spiritual password. The heavenly messenger has been sent precisely to give us that knowledge, without which there is no salvation.

In Christian Gnosticism, that messenger is Christ. Christ has come to earth to remind us of our heavenly origin and to give us the secret knowledge without which we cannot return to the spiritual mansions.

Since Christ is a heavenly messenger, and since body and matter are evil, most Christian Gnostics rejected the notion that Christ had a body like ours. Some said his body was an appearance, a sort of ghost that miraculously seemed to be a real body. Many distinguished between the heavenly “Christ” and the earthly “Jesus.” In some cases, this was coupled with the notion that Jesus did have a body but that this was of a “spiritual matter,” different from ours. Most denied the birth of Jesus, which would have put him under the power of the material world.

All these notions are various degrees of what the rest of the church called docetism—a name derived from a Greek word meaning “to seem,” for all these doctrines implied, in one way or another, that the body of Jesus appeared to be fully human but was not.

Meanwhile, how is this life to be lived? At this point, Gnostics gave two divergent answers. Most declared that, since the body is the prison of the spirit, one must control the body and its passions and thus weaken its power over the spirit. But there were also some who held that, since the spirit is by nature good and cannot be destroyed, we are to leave the body to its own devices and let it follow the guidance of its own passions. Thus while some Gnostics were extreme ascetics, others were libertines.

Gnosticism was a serious threat to Christianity throughout the second century.


Marcion, whose father was bishop of Sinope in Pontus, knew Christianity from an early age. But he had a profound dislike towards both Judaism and the material world. About A.D. 144, he went to Rome, where he gathered a following.

Since Marcion was convinced that the world is evil, he concluded that its creator must be either evil or ignorant. But instead of positing a long series of spiritual beings, as the Gnostics did, Marcion proposed a much simpler solution. According to him, the God and Father of Jesus is not the same as Jehovah, the God of the Old Testament. It was Jehovah who made this world. The Father’s purpose was that there be only a spiritual world. But Jehovah, either through ignorance or out of an evil intent, made this world and placed humankind in it.

This means that the Hebrew Scriptures are indeed inspired by a god, although this is Jehovah and not the Supreme Father. Jehovah is an arbitrary god, who chooses a particular people above all the rest. And he is also vindictive, constantly keeping an account on those who disobey him and punishing them.

Over against Jehovah, and far above him, is the Father of Christians. This God is not vindictive but loving. This God requires nothing of us but rather gives everything freely, including salvation. This God does not seek to be obeyed but to be loved. It is out of compassion for us, Jehovah’s creatures, that the Supreme God has sent his Son to save us, who simply appeared as a grown man during the reign of Tiberius. Naturally at the end, there will be no judgment, since the Supreme God is absolutely loving and will simply forgive us.

All this led Marcion to set the Hebrew Scriptures aside. If the Old Testament was the word of an inferior god, it should not be read in the churches nor used as the basis of Christian instruction. In order to fill this gap, Marcion compiled a list of books that he considered true Christian Scriptures. These were the epistles of Paul—one of the few, according to Marcion, who had really understood Jesus’ message—and the Gospel of Luke. As to the many quotations from the Old Testament in Luke and Paul, Marcion explained them away as interpolations—the handiwork of Judaizers seeking to subvert the original message.

For a number of years, this rival church achieved a measure of success, and even after it was clearly defeated, it lingered on for centuries.

Back to the Bible

Marcion’s list was the first attempt to put together a “New Testament.” When early Christians spoke of “Scripture,” what they meant was the Hebrew Scriptures, usually in the Greek version known as the Septuagint. It was also customary to read in church passages from one or several Gospels, as well as from the Epistles—particularly Paul’s. Since there was no approved list, different Gospels were read in different churches, and the same was true of other books.

But Marcion’s challenge required a response, and thus the church at large began to compile a list of sacred Christian writings. This was not done in a formal manner, through a council or special meeting. A consensus developed gradually.

There was no question, except among Gnostics and Marcionites, that the Hebrew Scripture was part of the Christian canon. This was important as a proof that God had been preparing the way for the advent of Christianity and even as a way of understanding the nature of the God who had been revealed in Jesus Christ. Christian faith was the fulfillment of the hope of Israel and not a sudden apparition from heaven. As to what is now called the New Testament, the Gospels were the first to attain general recognition. It is important to note that those early Christians decided to include more than one Gospel in their canon. They did this as a direct response to the challenge of Marcion and Gnosticism.

Many Gnostic teachers claimed that the heavenly messenger had trusted his secret knowledge to a particular disciple, who alone was the true interpreter of the message. Thus various Gnostic groups had a book that claimed to present the true teachings of Jesus. Such was, for instance, the Gospel of Saint Thomas.

In response, the church at large sought to show that its doctrines were not based on the supposed witness of a single apostle or Gospel but on the consensus of the entire apostolic tradition. The very fact that the various Gospels differed in matters of detail but agreed on the basic issues at stake made their agreement a more convincing argument.

By the end of the second century, the core of the canon was established: the four Gospels, Acts, and the Pauline epistles. On the shorter books of the present canon, there was no consensus until a much later date. It was in the second half of the fourth century that a complete consensus was achieved as to exactly which books ought to be included in the New Testament.

The Symbol of Faith

Another element in the church’s response to heresies was what we now call the Apostles’ Creed. Its basic text was put together, probably in Rome, around the year 150. It was then called “symbol of the faith.”

The word symbol meant a means of recognition, such as a token that a general gave to a messenger so that the recipient could recognize a true messenger. Likewise, the “symbol” put together in Rome was a means whereby Christians could distinguish true believers from those who followed the various heresies, particularly Gnosticism and Marcionism.

One of the main uses of this symbol was in baptism, where it was presented to the candidate in the form of a series of three questions:

Do you believe in God the Father almighty?

Do you believe in Christ Jesus, the Son of God, who was born of the Holy Ghost and of Mary the virgin, who was crucified under Pontius Pilate, and died, and rose again at the third day, living from among the dead, and ascended unto heaven and sat at the right of the Father, and will come to judge the quick and the dead?

Do you believe in the Holy Ghost, the holy church, and the resurrection of the flesh?

Closer scrutiny clearly shows that this early creed is directed against Marcion and the Gnostics. First, the Greek word pantokrator, usually translated as “almighty,” literally means “all ruling.” What is meant here is that there is nothing, and certainly not the material world, that falls outside of God’s rule. The distinction between a spiritual reality that serves God and a material reality that does not is rejected. This world, its matter and its physical bodies, are part of the “all” over which God reigns.

The creed’s most extensive paragraph is the one dealing with the Son. This is because it was precisely in their Christology that Marcion and the Gnostics differed most widely from the church. First, we are told that Jesus Christ is the “Son of God.” Other ancient versions say “Son of the same” or “His Son.” Jesus is the Son of the God who rules over this world and over all reality. The birth “of Mary the virgin” is not there primarily in order to stress the virgin birth—although, quite clearly, that is affirmed—but rather to affirm the very fact that Jesus was born and did not simply appear on earth, as Marcion and others claimed. The reference to Pontius Pilate is not there to put the blame on the Roman governor but rather to date the event to insist on the fact that it was a historical, datable event. And docetism is further denied by declaring that Jesus “was crucified … died, and rose again.” Finally, it is affirmed that this same Jesus will return “to judge,” a notion that Marcion would never accept.

The “holy church” is affirmed because Christians were beginning to underscore the authority of the church. And the “resurrection of the flesh” is a final rejection of any notion that the flesh is evil or of no consequence.

No More Secrets

In the struggle against heresy, the debate finally came to the issue of the authority of the church. All agreed that the true message was the one taught by Jesus. The Gnostics claimed that they had some secret access to that original message through a succession of secret teachers. Marcion claimed that he had access to that message through the writings of Paul and Luke—which, however, had to be purged of what did not agree with Marcion’s views regarding the Old Testament. The church at large claimed to be in possession of the original gospel and the true teachings of Jesus. Thus what was debated was in a way the authority of the church against the claims of the heretics.

At this point, the notion of apostolic succession became very important. What was argued was simply that, had Jesus had some secret knowledge to communicate to his disciples—which in fact he did not—he would have entrusted that teaching to the same apostles to whom he entrusted the church. If those apostles had received any such teaching, they in turn would have passed it on to those who were to follow them in the leadership of the church. Therefore, were there any such secret teaching, it should be found among the direct disciples of the apostles, and the successors of those disciples, the bishops.

But the truth of the matter is that those who can now—that is, in the second century—claim direct apostolic succession unanimously deny the existence of any such secret teaching. In conclusion, the Gnostic claim that there is a secret tradition, and that they have been entrusted with it, is false.

In order to strengthen this argument, it was necessary to show that the bishops of the time were indeed successors of the apostles. This was not difficult, since several of the most ancient churches had lists of bishops linking them with the apostolic past. Rome, Antioch, Ephesus, and others had such lists.

Be it through actual bishops or through other leaders (some early churches were headed by councils of “elders”), the orthodox church of the second century could show its connection with the apostles in a way in which Marcion and the Gnostics could not.

The “Catholic” Church

The word catholic means “universal,” but it also means “according to the whole.” To separate itself from the various heretical groups and sects, the ancient church began calling itself “catholic.” This title underscored both its universality and the inclusiveness of the witness on which it stood. It was the church “according to the whole,” that is, according to the total witness of all the apostles. Only the church “catholic,” the church “according to the whole,” could lay claim to the entire apostolic witness.

Ironically, through an evolution that took centuries, debates regarding the true meaning of catholic came to be centered on the person and authority of a single apostle—Peter.