Church Education Trust



The 3rd Century Herisies

From the end of the second century false teaching began to be given, particularly in Rome, in relation to the Person of Christ and the doctrine of the Trinity. It is summed up under the general title of "Monarchianism", this held that there was only one Person Monarch, in the Godhead.

There were two forms of this heresy:-


The Father alone is God; Jesus Christ, having lived in perfect obedience to God, was adopted as His Son at His baptism. This is the underlying principle of modern Unitarianism, A similar line of teaching was called Dynamism or Dynamistic Monarchianism; a divine power descended on the man Jesus and enabled Him to do the works of God.

Modalism or Sabellianism.

Teachers of this heresy ignored the distinction of Persons in the Godhead, and made the three Persons only modes or forms or manifestations of the One God. Its earliest form was Patripassionism, the teaching that the Father Himself became incarnate and suffered. This heresy was first taught in Rome by Praxeas.

The most able exponent of the later and more developed form of Modalism was Sabellius, who was teaching in Rome in the early years of the third century. The Biblical teaching on this subject was defended and expounded by Tertullian, Hippolytus and Origen. Tertullian is actually the first writer to use the word "Trinity" (Latin "Trinitas"); he defines the Godhead as being "one Substance in three Persons", the word "substance" being used in the sense of "Being" or "Essence".


Besides the heresies which arose within the Church, there were attacks made on Christian doctrines by philosophers of various creeds, particularly Neo-Platonism. A Neo-Platonic school was established at Alexandria; this was a religious as well as philosophical movement and represented a direct attempt to compete with Christianity.

During the third century it was led by two men of great influence and ability, Plotinus and Porphyry. Porphyry was a formidable opponent of Christianity; in his treatise "Against the Christians" he made severe criticisms of the Scriptures; he was the first to argue that the book of Daniel was not the work of the prophet, but was written in the time of Antiochus.


The century began with a decree issued by the Emperor Septimius Severus in 202 forbidding people to become either Jews or Christians. This gave the signal for an outbreak of fierce persecution in Egypt, especially at Alexandria. The Church in Africa also suffered, and the case is recorded of two young women in Carthage, one a free-born matron, the other a slave, standing hand in hand in the arena to face their death.

But after this the Church was almost free from persecution till the middle of the century. The exception to this general freedom came in the reign of Maximinus (235 - 238), who issued an edict of persecution against Christians. This resulted in the exile of Pontianus and his rival Hippolytus from Rome, but it is uncertain how widely the edict was carried out.

From 218 to 283 the Emperors were military despots appointed by the armies and nearly all the 17 Caesars died violent deaths. During this period, when affairs outside were so unsettled, the Church grew greatly in numbers.

DECIUS (249 - 251).

Decius set himself to revive the ancient Roman discipline and the glory of the empire. As he regarded the Church as an obstacle in the way of this, he decided that Christianity must go. Accordingly he made a thorough and systematic attempt to eliminate Christianity altogether.

In 230 he issued an edict requiring everyone to offer sacrifice to the state gods and to obtain a certificate to say that they had done so. It is noteworthy that the persecution was carried out by officials without support from the populace, as in former perseuctions; the old hatred and suspicions toward Christians were now disappearing.

The persecution lasted a year and was ended by the death of Decius in battle. Many Christians, who had joined the Church easily in time of peace, gave way, but many stood firm and the prisons were crowded with confessors". After this persecution, the Church enjoyed a few years' respite.

VALERIAN (253 - 260).

After leaving the Church undisturbed for a few years, Valerian changed his policy in 257 and began to persecute. First, he issued an edict ordering all clergy to worship the gods of the Empire and forbidding all Christian meetings in public. In the following year he ordered all clergy to be put to death, all Christian senators and knights to lose their rank and have their property confiscated and all Christians in the imperial household to be sent to penal servitude.


Cyprian was born in Carthage about 200 A.D. of cultured, wealthy and noble parents. He gained a reputation for learning, eloquence and legal attainments. He was converted at the age of 46, sold his estate and gave the money to the poor. He was soon promoted in the Church, and in 249 he was elected Bishop of Carthage.

During the Decian persecution, believing that the Church needed wise guidance in this crisis he withdrew from Carthage and directed the affairs of the Church from a place of hiding. When he returned after the persecution was over, he was faced by a difficult situation. Of those who had failed under persecution, many were eager to return to the Church communion.

But many in the Church opposed their return. In 251 Cyprian called a council in Carthage, and it was decided that those who were pennient should be received back, at least on their death-beds, but clergy who had apostatised were not allowed to return to their offices. Later the African Church restored all pentients to communion; meanwhile a new movement, standing for rigorous severity toward those who had apostatised, arose under the leadership of Novatian.

This party broke off from the Church and formed a schism which spread widely and persisted until the sixth century. Styling themselves Puritans, they were strictly orthodox in viewpoint and stood for severity in discipline, refusing to readmit to membership anyone who had been guilty of a 'deadly' sin.

Cyprian maintained that they were outside the Catholic Church, and therefore outside its sacrauents and its salvation. When a difference arose with Stephen bishop of Rome and Stephen tried to impose his authority on other bishops, Cyprian strenuously resisted him and refused to acknowledge Stephen as a "Bishop of bishops". Cyprian suffered martyrdom in the Valerian persecution and was beheaded in 258.

GALLIENUS (260 - 268).

Galllenusy Valerian's son, restored to the Christians their churches and property. This meant in effect that Christianity became a permitted religion, and the Church was free from persecution for the rest of the century. The period was thus one of peace and expansion. Christians occupied important positions in the "gate and the imperial household and came to be held in high respect. Large churches were built in every city and they were filled with woshipper. But there was a tendency to laxity, strife and quarrels among the Christians.

DIOCLETIAN (284 - 305).

Diocletian, who was elected Emperor by the army, was a man of great practical ability. After the long, unsettled period during which the Empire had been threatened by foreign invasion as well as by internal strife.

Diocletian set himself to carry out a complete reorganisation of the Empire. He transferred the Emperor's residence from Rome to Nicomedia and thus divested the Senate of real authority. The Empire was divided into two, the Western Empire with its capital in  Milan and the Eastern Empire with its capital in Nicomedia.

Maximian was appointed to rule the Western Empire, while Diocletian ruled In the East; each took the title of 'Augustus'. Each of the 'Augusti' had a subordinate bearing the title of 'Caesars'. Diocletiants subordinate was Galerius. The Caesarswere to be successors to the Augusti.

Diocletian ruled over Thrace and the wealthy East, while Galerius was to control the Roman frontier territory along the Danube. In the West, Maximian ruled over Italy and Africa; Constantius was to control the Rhine frontier, together with Britain, Gaul and Spain.

The provinces were rearranged and grouped under dioceses, an arrangement that was followed in the organisation of the Christian Church; Diocletiants wife and daughter were favourable to Christianity, as was also Helena, the wife of Constantius and mother of Constantine. But Galerius, whose mother was an ignorant and superstitious pagan and who was himself influenced by the Neo-Platonists, was a bitter enemy of the Christians.

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