Augustine and Chrysostom on Manichaeism (1)

For the next month or two, we will be posting different essays concerning aspects of ancient church history. We start with several heresies, the first of which is Manichaeism.

The early church was no stranger to heresies. The Devil has constantly introduced false ideas in the church and has led many astray. This was the case even during the Apostolic Era. I Corinthian ­­­11:19 Paul writes “For there must be also heresies among you.”[1] As the gospel spread throughout parts of Europe and Asia, the church gained many new converts—many who were formerly under the persuasion of various forms of philosophy. Inevitably what occurred with the influx of converts was a mixing of Christianity with philosophy, a mingling of Jerusalem and Athens. The tragic results however of this mingling were various heresies that corrupted the gospel. Manicheanism sprung out of this mixing of Christianity with eastern philosophy, especially Zoroastrianism. God in his providence though raised up men to defend the truth of the whole Bible against this heresy, men who defended orthodoxy with their pen as well as with their speech and men who themselves understood the Manichaean heresy. The error of Manichaeism then can be understood by an examination of the polemical works of two of these defenders of orthodoxy, John Chrysostom and Augustine.

Before examining the works of Chrysostom and Augustine against the Manichaean heresy, it is necessary to lay out a general background of the Manichaean system. Manichaeism bears the name of its founder Mani. He originated from Mesopotamia and claimed to have received angelic visions as a child. According to his claims, angels continued to visit him throughout his childhood and early adulthood. Eventually, from these angelic visitors, he received a divine commission. Mani was to “proclaim the glad tidings of truth.” He followed this ill-defined commission faithfully throughout much of Asia and even into the West. Mani successfully spread his heresy for nearly 40 years before Persian King Bahraim executed him in AD 276.[2] Before he was executed though, Mani’s philosophy gained many followers and his disciples spread Manichaeism throughout the Ancient world.[3] As its spread continued, Manichaeism developed into a sort of pseudo-Christianity that denied the Old Testament, confessed a rigid dualism, and therefore denied the incarnation of Christ.

Manichaeism as it came westward aligned itself in a superficial way to Christianity. Albert H. Newman described the Manichaean pseudo-Christianity: “Mani and his followers, whether from designed imposture or from less sinister motives, attempted to palm themselves off as Christians, nay, as the only true Christians.”[4] John Chrysostom echoed that same sentiment in his homily on Hebrews when he accused Manichaeans of wearing Christianity merely as a mask.[5] In their forcing of Christianity into their own philosophy, Manicheans denied the Old Testament outright as well as any Old Testament influence on the New Testament. Mani himself did at the very least hold the New Testament with some regard. He showed this most clearly by his claimed to be an apostle of Christ and the promised Paraclete.[6]

The most basic tenet of Manichaean “Christianity” though was a very rigid dualism. This dualism undoubtedly had its origin in the Zoroastrian philosophy that thrived in the Mesopotamian culture in which Mani grew up. Mani and the Manichaeans simply took Zoroastrian dualism and developed/modified it to “align” into Christianity.[7] To accomplish this blend Manichaeism echoed the Christian belief that God is good and the world is full of corruption. However, the Manichaean dualism was so rigid that they denied a good God who was creator of physical matter that was good.[8] Therefore the Manichaean system needed especially to deny the Old Testament history of Genesis 1-2. The Manichaean God would never have created the physical world out of His good pleasure, but the act of creation required the influence and rebellion of Satan.[9] Flowing out of the rigid dualism and denial of the Biblical creation came the denial of bodily resurrection. Since creation of the physical world was the result of evil and all physical matter was evil, Manichaeism logically denied the resurrection of the body. Instead of a bodily resurrection, the soul would simply be transferred into the spiritual realm.[10]

This strict dualism between good/evil and spiritual/physical necessitated that the Manichaeans denied the incarnation. In theory Manichaeism held to much of the New Testament and confessed the deity of Jesus Christ but, God could never have an actual physical body.[11] This idea flew in the face of their most defining tenet. To keep their claim to the Christian scriptures of the New Testament though, Manichaeism claimed that Christ only seemed to have a physical nature but in reality he only had a spiritual nature. The Manichaean Christ existed with one nature, purely spiritual, non-incarnate.[12]

[1] I Corinthians 11:19 (KJV).

[2] Albert H. Newman, “Introduction Essay on the Manichaean Heresy,” in St. Augustine: The Writings Against the Manichaeans and against the Donatists, Nicene and Post Nicene Fathers Series 1 ed. Philip Schaff, vol. 4 (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1989), 9-10.

[3] Newman, “Introduction Essay on the Manichaean Heresy,” 10.

[4] Newman, “Introduction Essay on the Manichaean Heresy,” 24.

[5] Chris L. De Wet, “John Chrysostom on Manichaeism,” HTS Teologiese Studies / Theological Studies 75, no. 1 (September 4, 2019): 5.

[6] Newman, “Introduction Essay on the Manichaean Heresy,” 24.

[7] Newman, “Introduction Essay on the Manichaean Heresy,” 18.

[8] Newman, “Introduction Essay on the Manichaean Heresy,” 11-12, 25.

[9] Newman, “Introduction Essay on the Manichaean Heresy,” 13-14.

De Wet, “John Chrysostom on Manichaeism,” 2.

[10] De Wet, “John Chrysostom on Manichaeism,” 4.

[11] Augustine, “Moral and Religious Life,” in The Essential Augustine, ed. Vernon J. Bourke (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 1981), 158.

[12] De Wet, “John Chrysostom on Manichaeism,” 2.

By Arend Haveman

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