Cerinthus, a traditional opponent of St. John. It will probably always remain an open question whether his fundamentally Ebionite sympathies inclined him to accept Jewish rather than Gnostic additions.
Modern scholarship has therefore preferred to view his doctrine as a fusing together and incorporating in a single system tenets collected from Jewish, Oriental, and Christian sources; but the nature of that doctrine is sufficiently clear, and its opposition to the instruction of St. John as decided as that of the Nicolaitanes.
Cerinthus was of Egyptian origin, and in religion a Jew. He received his education in the Judaeo- Philonic school of Alexandria. On leaving Egypt he visited Jerusalem, Caesarea, and Antioch. From Palestine he passed into Asia and there developed his heresy.
Galatia, according to the same authority, was selected as his headquarters, whence he circulated his errors. On one of his Journeys he arrived at Ephesus, and met St. John in the public baths. The Apostle, hearing who was there, fled from the place as if for life, crying to those about him : “Let us flee, lest the bath fall in while Cerinthus, the enemy of the truth, is there.”
The value of this and other such traditions is confessedly not great—that of the meeting with St. John in the bath is told of “Ebion” as well as of Cerinthus;—but a stratum of fact probably underlies them, and they at least indicate the feeling with which the “early Churchmen” regarded him. Epiphanius, by whom the majority are preserved, derived the principal portion of his statements partly from Irenaeus, and partly, as Lipsius has shown with high probability, from the now lost earlier work of Hippolytus on heresies.
His doctrines may be collected under the heads of his conception of the Creation, his Christology, and his Eschatology. His opinions upon two of these points, as preserved in existing works, support the usual view, that Cerinthus rather than Simon Magus is to be regarded as the predecessor of Judaeo-Christian Gnosticism.
Unlike Simon Magus and Menander, Cerinthus did not claim a sacred and mystic power. Caius the Presbyter can only assert against him that he pretended to angelic revelations. But his mind, like theirs, brooded over the co-existence of good and evil, spirit and matter; and his scheme seems intended to free the “unknown God” and the Christ from the bare imputation of infection through contact with nature and man.
Trained as he was in the philosophy of Philo, the Gnosis of Cerinthus did not of necessity compel him to start from opposition—in the sense of malignity—of evil to good, matter to spirit. He recognized opposition in the sense of difference between the one active perfect principle of life—God—and that lower imperfect passive existence which was dependent upon God; but this fell far short of malignity. He therefore conceived the material world to have been formed not by “the First God”, but by angelic Beings of an inferior grade of Emanation. More precisely still he described the main agent as a certain Power separate and distinct from the “Principality” and ignorant of God’s Fatherhood. He refused in the spirit of a true Jew to consider the ” God of the Jews” identical with that author of the material world who was alleged by Gnostic teachers to be inferior and evil. He preferred to identify him with the Angel who delivered the Law. Neander and Ewald have pointed out that these are legitimate deductions from the teaching of Philo. The conception is evidently that of an age when hereditary and instinctive reverence for the law served as a check upon the system maker. Cerinthus is a long way from the bolder and more hostile schools of later Gnosticism.
The Christology is of an Ebionite cast and of the same transition character. It must not be assumed that it is but a form of the common Gnostic dualism, the double-personality afterwards elaborated by Basilides and Valentinus. Epiphanius, the chief source of information, is to many a mere uncritical compiler, sometimes following Hippolytus, sometimes Irenaeus. Now it is Christ Who is born of Mary and Joseph, now it is Jesus Who is born like other men, born of Joseph and Mary; He differs from others only in being more righteous, more prudent, and more wise; it is not till after baptism, when Jesus has reached manhood, that Christ, “that is to say, the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove”, descends upon Jesus from above, revealing to Him and through Him to those after Him the “unknown Father”. If, as Lipsius thinks, Irenaeus has here been influenced by the later Gnostic systems, and has altered the original doctrine of Cerinthus as given in Hippolytus, that doctrine would seem to be that he considered “Jesus” and “Christ” titles given indifferently to that One Personality Which was blessed by the descent of the Holy Spirit, the Power on high. This Power enables Jesus to perform miracles, but forsakes Him at His Passion, “flying heavenwards”. So, again, it is Jesus, according to one passage of Epiphanius, Who dies and rises again, the Christ being spiritual and remaining impassible; according to a second, it is Christ Who dies, but is not yet risen, nor shall He rise till the general resurrection. That passage, however, which allows that the human body of Jesus had been raised from the dead separates its author completely from Gnostic successors.
The Chiliastic eschatology of Cerinthus is very clearly stated by Theodoret, Caius, Dionysius (Eus.), and Augustine, but not alluded to by Irenaeus. His silence need perhaps cause no surprise : Irenaeus was himself a Chiliast of the spiritual school, and in his notes upon Cerinthus he is only careful to mention what was peculiar to his system. The conception of Cerinthus was highly coloured. In his “dream” and “phantasy” the Lord shall have an earthly kingdom in which the elect are to enjoy pleasures, feasts, marriages, and sacrifices. Its capital is Jerusalem and its duration 1000 years : thereafter shall ensue the restoration of all things. Cerinthus derived this notion from Jewish sources. His notions of eschatology are radically Jewish : they may have originated, but do not contain, the Valentinian notion of a spiritual marriage between the souls of the elect and the Angels of the Pleroma.
Other peculiar features of his teaching may be noted. He held that if a man died unbaptized, another was to be baptized in his stead and in his name, that at the day of resurrection he might not suffer punishment and be made subject to Judgement.
He had learned at Alexandria to distinguish between the different degrees of inspiration, and attributed to different Angels the dictation severally of the words of Moses and of the Prophets; in this agreeing with Saturninus and the Ophites. He insisted upon a partial observance of the “divine” law, such as circumcision and the ordinances of the sabbath; resembling, in this severance of the genuine from the spurious elements of the law, the school which produced the Clementina and the Book of Baruch.
He did not even scruple to call him who gave the law “not good”, though the epithet may have been intended to express a charge of ethical narrowness rather than an identification of the Lawgiver with the doctrine of Marcion. Epiphanius admits that the majority of these opinions rest upon report and oral communication.
This, coupled with the evident confusion of the statements recorded, makes it difficult to assign to Cerinthus any certain place in the history of heresy. He can only be regarded generally as a link connecting Judaism and Gnosticism.
The traditionary relations of Cerinthus to St. John have probably done more to rescue his name from oblivion than his opinions. In the course of time popular belief asserted that St. John had written his Gospel specially against the errors of Cerinthus, a belief curiously travestied by the counter-assertion that not St. John but Cerinthus himself was the author of both the Gospel and the Apocalypse. It is not difficult to account on subjective grounds for this latter assertion.
The Chiliasm of Cerinthus was an exaggeration of language current in the earliest ages of the church; and no work in N.T. reproduced that language so ingenuously as the Apocalypse. The conclusion was easy that Cerinthus had but ascribed the Apocalypse to the Apostle to obtain credit and currency for his own forgery.
The “Alogi” argued upon similar grounds against the Fourth Gospel. It did not agree with the Synoptists, and though it disagreed in every possible way with the alleged doctrines of Cerinthus, yet the false-hearted author of the Apocalypse was, they asserted, certainly the writer of the Gospel.
The Cerinthians (known also as Merinthians) do not appear to have long survived. If any are identical with the Ebionites mentioned by Justin, some gradually diverged from their master in a retrograde direction; but the majority were engulfed in sects of greater note. One last allusion to them is found in the ecclesiastical rule applied to them by Ciennadius Massiliensis: “Ex istis si qui ad nos venerint, non requirendum ab eis utrum baptizati sint an non, sed hoc tantum, si credant in ecclesiae fidem, et baptizentur ecclesiastico baptismate”.