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Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Vol. IV:
Writings in Connection with the Manichæan Controversy.: Chapter VIII

Early Church Fathers  Index     

Chapter VIII.—The Relation of Manichæism to Christianity.

Far more superficial are the relations of Manichæism to Christianity than to any of the heathen systems to which we have adverted.  In fact no Christian idea has been introduced into the system without being completely perverted.  If Christian language is used, it is utterly emptied of its meaning.  If Christian practices are introduced, a completely different motive lies at the basis.  Indeed the wildest of the Christian Gnostic systems kept immeasurably nearer to historical Christianity than did the Manichæans.  While he blasphemed against the historical Jesus, Mani claimed to believe in Christ, a purely spiritual and divine manifestation, whose teachings had been sadly perverted by the Jews.  It is scarcely possible to determine with any certainty what view Mani actually took of New Testament history.  That he claimed to be a follower of Christ, and the Paraclete whom Christ had promised to send, or at least the organ of the Paraclete, Eastern and Western authorities agree.  Mani is said, by Augustin, to have begun his Fundamental Epistle as follows:  "Manichæus, an Apostle of Jesus Christ, by the providence of God the Father.  These are wholesome words from the perennial and living fountain."  So also in the Act. Archel., Mani is represented as introducing a letter:  "Manichæus, an Apostle of Jesus Christ, and all the saints who are with me, and the virgins, to Marcellus, my beloved son:  Grace, mercy, and peace be with you from God the Father, and from our Lord Jesus Christ."  There can be no doubt but that 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.  It is certain, moreover, that in this guise they gained many proselytes from the Christian ranks.  As previously remarked, Mani and his followers professed to accept the New Testament Scriptures, yet they treated them in a purely subjective manner, eliminating as Judaistic interpolation whatever they could not reconcile with their own tenets.  Their adherence to the New Testament, as well as their adherence to Christ, was, therefore, virtually a mere pretence.  In common with Christianity, Manichæism laid much stress on redemption, yet there was nothing in common between the Christian idea of redemption through the atoning suffering of Jesus Christ and the Manichæan notion of p. 25 redemption through the escape of imprisoned light.  Manichæans and Christians were at one in advocating self-denial and the due subordination of the flesh.  It need not be pointed out how radically different the Christian view was from the Manichæan view, already expounded.  Yet pagan ascetical ideas had already invaded the Church long before the time of Mani, and many Christians were in a position to be attracted strongly by the Manichæan theory and practice.  The later asceticism as it appeared in the hermit life of the fourth and following centuries was essentially pagan and had much in common with the Manichæan.  Still more manifest is the anatagonism between Manichæism and Christianity on the great fundamental principles of religion.  The Manichæan and Christian ideas of God are mutually contradictory.  Christianity holds fast at the same time to the unity, the omnipotence, the omniscience, the perfect wisdom, the holiness and the goodness of God.  If He permits sin to exist in the world it is not because He looks upon it with complacency, nor because He lacked wisdom to provide against its rise or power to annihilate it at once when it appeared, nor because He did not foresee its rise and its ravages, but because the permission of sin forms part of His all-wise plan for the education of moral and spiritual beings.  If the forces of nature are under certain circumstances hurtful or destructive to man, Christianity does not regard them as the operations of a malevolent power thwarting God’s purposes, but it sees underneath the destructive violence purposes of goodness and of grace; or if it fails to see them in any given instance it yet believes that God doeth all things well.  Christianity admits the existence of evil in men and in demons, yet of evil that ministers to the purposes of the Most High.  Christianity is the only religion that has been able to arrive at a perfectly satisfactory theology, cosmology, anthropology, and eschatology, and this is because Christianity alone has a true and satisfying soteriology.  It is God manifest in the flesh that meets all the conditions for the solution of the problem of human existence.  Manichæism openly antagonized Christianity in its adherence to Old Testament revelation, including the Jewish and Christian monotheism.  The good God could not, they maintained, be the creator of this world and of the universe of being.  That God should be looked upon as in any sense the creator of the devil and his angels, and of the material world, was in their view an absurdity—a monstrosity.  The unchristian character of the Manichæan view of matter, leading to unchristian asceticism, has already been sufficiently indicated.  The reader will only need to compare the principles and practices of Manichæism, as delineated above, with those of Christianity as they are delineated in the New Testament and in the evangelical churches of to-day, to be impressed with the completely anti-Christian character of the former.

How then, it may well be asked, could Manichæism succeed as it did in fascinating so many intelligent members of the Catholic Church during the third, fourth and fifth centuries?  In attempting to answer this question it should be premised that the later Western Manichæism took far more account of historical Christianity than did Mani and his immediate followers.  In the West, at least, Manichæism set itself up as the only genuine exponent of Christianity.  The Jewish-Alexandrian philosophy, and Gnosticism its product, had done much towards discrediting the Old Testament Scriptures, and the moral and religious teachings therein contained.  Devout Jewish and Christian thinkers who had adopted this mode of thought, had attempted by means of the allegorical method of interpretation to reconcile the seeming antagonism between Judaism and philosophy.  But the process was so forced that its results could not be expected to satisfy those that felt no special interest in the removal of the difficulties.  Marcionism represents a stern refusal to apply the allegory, and a determination to exhibit the antagonism between Judaism and current thought, and especially the seeming antagonism between Judaism and Christianity, in the harshest manner.  Marcionism was still vigorous in the East when Manichæism arose, and p. 26 through this party unfavorable views of the Old Testament were widely disseminated.  Many Christians doubtless felt that the Old Testament and its religion were burdensome and trammelling to Christianity.  The very fact that Mani set aside so summarily every element of Judaism that he encountered in the current Christianity, doubtless commended his views to a large and influential element in the East and the West alike.  Mani claimed to set forth a spiritual religion as opposed to a carnal.  The asceticism of Manichæism was in the line of a wide-spread popular ascetical movement that was already in progress, and so commended it to many.  The question as to the origin of evil, and as to the relation of the good, wise and powerful God to the evil that appears in the world, in man and in demons was never asked with more interest than during the early Christian centuries, and any party that should advance a moderately plausible theory was sure to receive its share of public attention.  Mani professed to have a solution and the only possible solution of questions of this class, and however fantastic may have been the forms in which his speculations were set forth, they were doubtless all the more acceptable on this account in that semi-pagan age to many intelligent people.  The fact that these forms satisfied so able a thinker as Mani undoubtedly was, would guarantee their acceptance by a large number both East and West.  There was in the West at this time, and had been for centuries, a hankering after Oriental theosophy, the more extravagant the better.  The wide-spread worship of Mithra was an excellent preparation for the more complete system of Mani.  Manichæism and Neo-Platonism antagonized the Christianity of the fourth and fifth centuries from opposite sides, and those minds for whom Platonism had no charms were almost sure to be attracted by the theosophy of Mani.  "How are we to explain," asks Harnack, 14 "the rapid spread of Manichæism, and the fact that it really became one of the great religions?  Our answer is, that Manichæism was the most complete Gnosis, the richest, most consequent and most artistic system formed on the basis of the ancient Babylonian religion.… What gave strength to Manichæism was… that it united its ancient mythology and a thorough-going materialistic dualism with an exceedingly simple spiritual worship and a strict morality.  On comparing it with the Semitic religions of nature, we perceive that it retained their mythologies, after transforming them into doctrines, but abolished all their sensuous cultus, substituting instead a spiritual worship as well as a strict morality.  Manichæism was thus able to satisfy the new wants of an old world.  It offered revelation, redemption, moral virtue, and immortality [this last is very doubtful, if conscious immortality be meant], spiritual benefits on the basis of the religion of nature.  A further source of strength lay in the simple, yet firm social organization which was given by Mani himself to his new institution.  The wise man and the ignorant, the enthusiast and the man of the world, could all find acceptance here, and there was laid on no one more than he was able and willing to bear."

The question as to the secret of the fascination that Manichæism was able to exercise even over the most intelligent Western minds, may receive a more concrete answer from the autobiographical account of Augustin’s own relations to the party.  What was it that attracted and enthralled, for nine years, him who was to become the greatest theologian of the age?  In his Confessions (Book III. ch. 6) he gives this impassioned account of his first connection with Manichæism:  "Therefore I fell among men proudly railing, very carnal and voluble, in whose mouth were the snares of the devil—the bird lime being composed of a mixture of the syllables of Thy Name, and of our Lord Jesus Christ, and of the Paraclete, the Holy Ghost, the Comforter.  These names departed not out of their mouths, but so far forth as the sound and clatter of the tongue; for the heart was empty of truth.  Still p. 27 they cried ‘Truth, Truth,’ and spoke much about it to me, yet it was not in them, but they spake falsely not of Thee only—who, verily art the Truth—but also of the elements of this world, Thy creatures… O Truth, Truth! how inwardly even then did the marrow of my soul pant after Thee, when they frequently and in a multiplicity of ways, and in numerous and huge books, sounded out Thy Name to me, though it was but a voice.  And these were the dishes in which to me, hungering for Thee, they, instead of Thee, served up the sun and the moon, Thy beauteous works—but yet Thy works, not Thyself, nay, nor Thy first works…Woe, woe, by what steps was I dragged down to the depths of hell!—toiling and turmoiling through want of Truth, when I sought after Thee, my God,—to Thee I confess it, who hadst mercy on me when I had not yet confessed, sought after Thee not according to the understanding of the mind in which Thou desiredst that I should excel the beasts, but according to the sense of the flesh."



Encyclopædia Britannica, art. Manichæism.

Next: Chapter IX

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