The most unpleasant task of ecclesiastical organization was to prevent a fragmentation of the Church through the multiplication of heresies—i.e., doctrines contrary to conciliar definitions of the Christian creed. Once triumphant, the Church ceased to preach toleration; she looked with the same hostile eye upon individualism in belief as the state upon secession or revolt. Neither the Church nor the heretics thought of heresy in purely theological terms. The heresy was in many cases the ideological flag of a rebellious locality seeking liberation from the imperial power; so the Monophysites wished to free Syria and Egypt from Constantinople; the Donatists hoped to free Africa from Rome; and as Church and state were now united, the rebellion was against both. Orthodoxy opposed nationalism, heresy defended it; the Church labored for centralization and unity, the heretics for local independence and liberty.
Arianism, overcome within the Empire, won a peculiar victory among the barbarians. Christianity had been first carried to the Teutonic tribes by Roman captives taken in the Gothic invasions of Asia Minor in the third century. The “apostle” Ulfilas (311?–81) was not quite an apostle. He was the descendant of a Christian captive from Cappadocia, and was born and raised among the Goths who lived north of the Danube. About 341 he was consecrated as their bishop by Eusebius, the Arian prelate of Nicomedia. When the Gothic chieftain Athanaric persecuted the Christians in his dominions, Ulfilas obtained permission from the Arian Constantius to bring the little community of Gothic Christians across the Danube into Thrace. To instruct and multiply his converts he patiently translated, from the Greek into Gothic, all the Bible except the Books of Kings, which he omitted as dangerously martial; and as the Goths had as yet no written language, he composed a Gothic alphabet based upon the Greek. His Bible was the first literary work in any Teutonic tongue. The devoted and virtuous life of Ulfilas generated among the Goths such confidence in his wisdom and integrity that his Arian Christianity was accepted by them without question. As other barbarians received their Christianity in the fourth and fifth centuries from the Goths, nearly all the invaders of the Empire were Arians, and the new kingdoms established by them in the Balkans, Gaul, Spain, Italy, and Africa were officially Arian. Conquerors and conquered differed by only an iota in their faith: the orthodox held Christ to be identical in being (homoousios), the Arians considered Him only similar in being (homoiousios), with God the Father; but the difference became vital in the politics of the fifth and sixth centuries. By this chance concatenation of events Arianism held its ground till the orthodox Franks overthrew the Visigoths in Gaul, Belisarius conquered Vandal Africa and Gothic Italy, and Recared (589) changed the faith of the Visigoths in Spain.
We cannot interest ourselves today in the many winds of doctrine that agitated the Church in this period—Eunomians, Anomeans, Apollinarians, Macedonians, Sabellians, Massalians, Novatians, Priscillianists; we can only mourn over the absurdities for which men have died, and will. Manicheism was not so much a Christian heresy as a Persian dualism of God and Satan, Good and Evil, Light and Darkness; it thought to reconcile Christianity and Zoroastrianism, and was bitterly buffeted by both. It faced with unusual candor the problem of evil, the strange abundance of apparently unmerited suffering in a world providentially ruled; and felt compelled to postulate an Evil Spirit coeternal with the Good. During the fourth century Manicheism made many converts in East and West. Several of the emperors used ruthless measures against it; Justinian made it a capital crime; gradually it faded out, but it left its influence on such later heretics as the Paulicians, Bogomiles, and Albigensians. In 385 a Spanish bishop, Priscillian, was accused of preaching Manicheism and universal celibacy; he denied the charges; he was tried before the usurping Emperor Maximus at Trier, two bishops being his accusers; he was condemned; and over the protests of St. Ambrose and St. Martin he and several of his companions were burned to death (385).
While meeting all these assailants the Church found herself almost overwhelmed by the Donatist heresy in Africa. Donatus, Bishop of Carthage (315), had denied the efficacy of sacraments administered by priests in a state of sin; the Church, unwilling to risk so much on the virtues of the clergy, wisely repudiated the idea. The heresy nevertheless spread rapidly in North Africa; it enlisted the enthusiasm of the poor, and the theological aberration grew into a social revolt. Emperors fulminated against the movement; heavy fines and confiscations were decreed for persistence in it; the power of buying, selling, or bequeathing property was denied to the Donatists; they were driven from their churches by imperial soldiery, and the churches were turned over to orthodox priests. Bands of revolutionaries, at once Christian and communist, took form under the name of Circumcelliones, or prowlers; they condemned poverty and slavery, canceled debts and liberated slaves, and proposed to restore the mythical equality of primitive man. When they met a carriage drawn by slaves they put the slaves in the carriage and made the master pull it behind him. Usually they contented themselves with robbery; but sometimes, irritated by resistance, they would blind the orthodox or the rich by rubbing lime into their eyes, or would beat them to death with clubs; or so their enemies relate. If they in turn met death they rejoiced, certain of paradise. Fanaticism finally captured them completely; they gave themselves up as heretics, and solicited martyrdom; they stopped wayfarers and asked to be killed; and when even their enemies tired of complying, they leaped into fires, or jumped from precipices, or walked into the sea.2 Augustine fought Donatism with every means, and for a time seemed to have overcome it; but when the Vandals arrived in Africa the Donatists reappeared in great number, and rejoiced at the expulsion of the orthodox priests. A tradition of fierce sectarian hatred was handed down with pious persistence, and left no united opposition when (670) the Arabs came.
Meanwhile Pelagius was stirring three continents with his attack on the doctrine of original sin, and Nestorius was courting martyrdom by doubts concerning the Mother of God. Nestorius had been a pupil of Theodore of Mopsuestia (350?–?428), who had almost invented the Higher Criticism of the Bible. The Book of Job, said Theodore, was a poem adapted from pagan sources; the Song of Songs was an epithalamium of frankly sensual significance; many of the Old Testament prophecies supposedly referring to Jesus alluded only to pre-Christian events; and Mary was the Mother not of God but only of the human nature in Jesus.3 Nestorius raised himself to the episcopal see at Constantinople (428), drew crowds with his eloquence, made enemies by his harsh dogmatism, and gave them their opportunity by adopting the ungallant opinion of Theodore about Mary. If Christ was God, then, said most Christians, Mary was theotokos, god-bearing, the Mother of God. Nestorius thought the term too strong; Mary, he said, was mother only of the human, not of the divine, nature in Christ. It would be better, he suggested, to call her the Mother of Christ.
Cyril, Archbishop of Alexandria, preached at Easter, 429, a sermon announcing the orthodox doctrine—that Mary is the true mother not of the Godhead itself, but of the incarnate Logos, or Word of God, containing both the divine and the human natures of Christ.4 Pope Celestine I, stirred by a letter from Cyril, called a council at Rome (430), which demanded that Nestorius be deposed or retract. When Nestorius refused, an ecumenical council at Ephesus (431) not only deposed but excommunicated him. Many bishops protested; but the people of Ephesus broke out into demonstrations of joy that must have awakened memories of Diana-Artemis. Nestorius was allowed to retire to Antioch; but as he continued to defend himself and demand restoration, the Emperor Theodosius II banished him to an oasis in the Libyan desert. He survived many years; at last the Byzantine court took pity on him, and sent him an imperial pardon. The messenger found him dying (c. 451). His followers withdrew to eastern Syria, built churches, established a school of learning at Edessa, translated the Bible, Aristotle, and Galen into Syriac, and played a vital part in acquainting the Moslems with Greek science, medicine, and philosophy. Persecuted by the Emperor Zeno, they crossed into Persia, opened an influential school at Nisibis, flourished under Persian toleration, and founded communities in Balkh and Samarkand, in India and China. Scattered through Asia, they survive to this day, still denouncing Mariolatry.
The last great heresy of this turbulent period, and the most momentous in result, was announced by Eutyches, head of a monastery near Constantinople. In Christ, said Eutyches, there were not two natures, human and divine; there was only the divine. Flavian, the patriarch of Constantinople, called a local synod which condemned this “Monophysite” heresy, and excommunicated Eutyches. The monk appealed to the bishops of Alexandria and Rome; Dioscoras, who had succeeded Cyril, persuaded the Emperor Theodosius to call another council at Ephesus (449). Religion was subordinated to politics; the Alexandrian see continued its war upon the see of Constantinople; Eutyches was exonerated, and Flavian was assailed with such oratorical violence that he died.5 The council issued anathemas against any man who should hold that there were two natures in Christ. Pope Leo I had not attended the council, but had sent it several letters (“Leo’s tome”) supporting Flavian. Shocked by the report of his delegates, Leo branded the council as the “Robber Synod,” and refused to recognize its decrees. A later council, at Chalcedon in 451, acclaimed Leo’s letters, condemned Eutyches, and reaffirmed the double nature of Christ. But the twenty-eighth canon of this council affirmed the equal authority of the bishop of Constantinople with that of Rome. Leo, who had fought for the supremacy of his office as indispensable to the unity and authority of the Church, rejected this canon; and a long struggle began between the rival sees.
To perfect the confusion, the majority of Christians in Syria and Egypt refused to accept the doctrines of two natures in the one person of Christ. The monks of Syria continued to teach the Monophysite heresy, and when an orthodox bishop was appointed to the see of Alexandria he was torn to pieces in his church on Good Friday.6 Thereafter Monophysitism became the national religion of Christian Egypt and Abyssinia, and by the sixth century predominated in western Syria and Armenia, while Nestorianism grew in Mesopotamia and eastern Syria. The success of the religious rebellion strengthened political revolt; and when the conquering Arabs, in the seventh century, poured into Egypt and the Near East, half the population welcomed them as liberators from the theological, political, and financial tyranny of the Byzantine capital.