Manichaeism and true Christianity
When one considers the most ancient sects, Manichaeism properly deserves a separate treatment.
It was the latest, the best organized, the most consistent, tenacious and dangerous form of Gnosticism, with which Christianity had to wage a long and persistent conflict. In effect it was a rival religion and formed a rival church, so much so that great thinkers, at one time or another (like Augustine) tasted its bitter fruit from within.
Compared with Islam
In this respect it resembled Islam which from the seventh century onwards became a formidable rival of Christianity. Both Manichaeism and Islam claimed to be divine revelations, perfecting the revelation of the Bible. Manichaeism was anti-Jewish and dualistic, while Mohammedanism was pseudo-Jewish and severely and fanatically monotheistic.
The sources, origin and teachings of Manichaeism are to some extent obscure, though it is obviously connected with the Persian Manes (circa 215-275 A.D.), who in the middle of the third century proclaimed himself a prophet, enunciated his new doctrine and was finally executed.
At first Manes (or Mani) found favour at the court of the Persian king Shapur I, but stirred up the hatred of the priestly cast of the Magians. He fled to East India and China and became acquainted with Buddhism.
In the year 270 Mani returned to Persia, and won many followers by his symbolic illustrations of the doctrines, which he pretended to have been revealed to him by God.
Soon after Mani’s death by crucifixion, his sect spread in Turkistan, Mesopotamia, North Africa, Sicily, Italy and Spain.
What attracted adherents to the new religion was the mysteriousness of the doctrine, its compact organization, the apparent solution of the terrible problem of evil, and the show of ascetic holiness. All these factors contributed so that Augustine of Hippo himself was nine years an auditor of the sect before he was converted to Christ.
Leo the Great searched for these heretics in Rome, and with the aid of the magistrate brought many to punishment. Valentinian III punished them by banishment, Justinian by death.
The elements of Manichaeism
Manichaeism is a compound of dualistic, pantheistic, Gnostic, and ascetic elements, combined with a fantastic philosophy of nature. It gives the whole system a materialistic character, notwithstanding its ascetic abhorrence of matter.
The metaphysical foundation is a radical dualism between good and evil, light and darkness, derived from the Persian Zoroastrism.
The prominent ethical feature is a rigid asceticism which strongly resembles Buddhism.
The Christian element is only a superficial varnish (as in Islam).
The Jewish religion is excluded altogether and therefore the Old Testament is rejected, as inspired of the devil and his false prophets.
The chief authorities were apocryphal Gospels and the writings of Mani. Here, then, is a serious and fundamental departure from true Christianity, which accepts as canonical the sixty-six books of the Bible, without tampering with them, receiving them as fully authoritative and infallible for faith and practice.
Its starting-point is the irreconcilable antagonism between the kingdom of light and the kingdom of darkness. These two kingdoms of good and evil stood opposed to each other from eternity, remaining unmingled.
Satan and his demons arose from darkness and then began to rage and make an assault upon the kingdom of light.
The result of this battle was the present world, which exhibits a mixture of the two elements. Each individual man is at once a son of light and of darkness, has a good soul, and a body substantially evil, with an evil soul corresponding to it.
The redemption of the light from the bonds of the darkness is effected by Christ.
Christ is identical with the sun spirit, and the Holy Ghost has his seat in the ether. These two beings attract the light forces out of the material world, while the prince of darkness, and the spirits imprisoned in the stars, seek to keep them back.
The Manichaean presentation of Christ, like the Gnostic, is entirely docetic. By its perverted view of body and matter, it excluded the possibility and idea of an incarnation of God the Son.
Mani’s mission involved re-interpreting the teachings of Christ which were first compiled and falsified by the apostles in the spirit of Judaism. Since Mani claimed to be the promised Paraclete, he had been entrusted to restore the truth concerning Christ.
In contract the Christ of the Scriptures is the eternal Son of God, fully divine, who in the fulness of times assumed a human body and reasonable soul (the incarnation), who died as an atonement for the sins of the elect and was raised again from death for their justification.
He ascended to heaven from where the church awaits His return to resurrection all flesh and judge all men. Even now Chris is and continues to be the God-man.
The Manichaean world-view
In its bare essence, the Manichaean goal of history is an entire separation of the light from the darkness; a tremendous conflagration consumes the world, and the kingdom of darkness sinks into impotence.
Thus Christianity is resolved into a fantastic dualistic, and yet pantheistic philosophy of nature. Moral regeneration is identified with a process of physical refinement; and the whole mystery of redemption is found in light, which was always worshipped in the East (where Mani stayed for many years) as the symbol of deity.
Any resemblance to biblical Christianity is coincidental; the Manichaean system is all confused and distorted.
Thus, if Jesus suffering of the cross is mentioned, it is only as a mere illustration, a symbol of the world-soul still enchained in matter. It is also seen in every plant which works itself upwards from the dark bosom of the earth towards the light.
Nothing distinctively Christian remains: no atonement, no substitution on the Cross, no deity of Christ, the Trinity is denied; the Scriptures are unscrupulously attacked and other “holy writings” referred to as authoritative.
The followers of Manes were organized into the two main groups of hearers and elect, with a leader and twelve masters (called magistri) among the elect in imitation of Christ and the apostles. Among them Mani and his successors, like Peter (as claimed) and the pope, held the chief place.
All this is derogatory of Christ who holds the pre-eminence and headship in His church, who effectually leads by His Word and Spirit.
Once again, if any resemblance emerges with biblical Christianity it is only superficial and or no consequence. Rather, as in this case, it is a denial of the organization of the church under Christ the Head, with undershepherds to teach the Word to their brethren in the faith.
The morality of the Manichaeans
Based on the false presupposition that matter is intrinsically evil, the morality of Manes was severely ascetic.
Interestingly enough, it is the extreme opposite of the Pelagian view of the essential moral purity of human nature. Both miss the biblical truth of man’s original defection from God and his fall into sin.
The Manichaean’s chief aim was to become entirely unworldly, as in the Buddhist religion, to renounce and destroy corporeity, and eventually to set the good soul free form the fetters of matter. Such ideals later developed into Romanist monasticism and are still present with us today.
Again, similar to Romanist theology, a distinction was made between a higher and lower morality. The perfection of the elect consisted in a threefold seal or preservation, as follows:
1. The purity in words and in diet, abstinence from all animal food and strong drink (similar to many modern ideas as in yoga and vegetarianism).
2. The renunciation of earthly property, and of material and industrial pursuits.
3. The choice of celibacy and abstinence from any gratification of sensual desire (even in marriage). Again, we notice how Romanism later on was infested with similar ideals (cf. The enforced celibacy of its clergy). All of this is in opposition to true Christianity, which insists on the holiness of marriage and even uses the analogy of marriage to illustrate the relationship Christ maintains with his bride, the Church (Ephesians 5).
The Manichees had no sacrifices, but four daily prayers, preceded by ablutions and accompanied by prostrations. They observed Sunday, with the intention of honouring the sun, for them equivalent with the redeemer.
They had weekly, monthly and yearly fasts. They rejected all festivals but in March they celebrated the martyrdom of their appointed teacher, Mani.
They sacraments were mysteries of the elect alone, so little information has come down to us concerning these.
Their worship, then, has little or no resemblance with Christian worship, in which the preaching of the Word, prayer, singing of hymns, and the observance of the ordinances are prominent.
Manichaeism at present
Some of the leading features of Manichaeism - the dualistic separation of soul and body, the ascription of nature to the devil, the pantheistic confusion of the moral and physical, the hypocritical symbolism, concealing heathen views under Christian phrases, the haughty air of mystery, and the aristocratic distinction of esoteric and exoteric - still live in various forms even in modern systems of philosophy and sects of religion.