Polycarp the Heretic Fighter

“Martyrdom of Polycarp” from Ceiling of the Church of St. Polycarp, Smyrna (now called Izmir, Turkey)


While most people are aware that many heresies afflicted the Church of God from the very beginning, few seem to know that the primary fighters of those heresies in the second century seemed to be based in Asia Minor.

And one of the most famous was Polycarp of Smyrna.

In the late 2nd Century, the Catholic historian Irenaeus recorded that the Bishops of Rome had problems with the heretics Valentinus, Cerdon, and Marcion.  He also recorded both the  Apostle John and Polycarp strongly renounced the Gnostic heretics:

Valentinus came to Rome in the time of Hyginus, flourished under Pius, and remained until Anicetus. Cerdon, too…Marcion, then, succeeding him, flourished under Anicetus.

But Polycarp also was not only instructed by apostles, and conversed with many who had seen Christ, but was also, by apostles in Asia, appointed bishop of the Church in Smyrna…always taught the things which he had learned from the apostles, and which the Church has handed down, and which alone are true. To these things all the Asiatic Churches testify, as do also those men who have succeeded Polycarp down to the present time — a man who was of much greater weight, and a more stedfast witness of truth, than Valentinus, and Marcion, and the rest of the heretics. He it was who, coming to Rome in the time of Anicetus caused many to turn away from the aforesaid heretics to the Church of God, proclaiming that he had received this one and sole truth from the apostles… John, the disciple of the Lord…exclaiming, “Let us fly, lest even the bath-house fall down, because Cerinthus, the enemy of the truth, is within.” And Polycarp himself replied to Marcion, who met him on one occasion, and said, “Dost thou know me?” “I do know thee, the first-born of Satan” (Irenaeus. Adversus Haeres. Book III, Chapter 4, Verse 3 and Chapter 3, Verse 4).

Valentinus, Cerinthus, and Marcion are considered by Catholics and others to have been Gnostic heretics, while Hyginus, Pius, and Anicetus were elders/bishops of Rome. Thus these quotes from Irenaeus show that the Roman bishops did not have a higher leadership role than Polycarp of Smyrna had, because it apparently took the stature of the visiting Polycarp to turn many Romans away from the Gnostic heretics.

Marcion was possibly the first heretic to attempt to do away with the Sabbath. Valentinus of Rome, who Polycarp denounced, who is believed to have been the first affiliated with Christianity to teach the Trinitarian concept of three hypostasis or make any clear statement of ‘equality’ regarding three alleged persons of God .

Irenaeus also reported

And when the blessed Polycarp was sojourning in Rome in the time of Anicetus, although a slight controversy had arisen among them as to certain other points…For neither could Anicetus persuade Polycarp to forego the observance [in his own way], inasmuch as these things had been always observed by John the disciple of our Lord, and by other apostles with whom he had been conversant; nor, on the other hand, could Polycarp succeed in persuading Anicetus to keep [the observance in his way], for he maintained that he was bound to adhere to the usage of the presbyters who preceded him. And in this state of affairs they held fellowship with each other; and Anicetus conceded to Polycarp in the Church the celebration of the Eucharist, by way of showing him respect; so that they parted in peace one from the other, maintaining peace with the whole Church, both those who did observe [this custom] and those who did not Irenaeus. (FRAGMENTS FROM THE LOST WRITINGS OF IRENAEUS. Translated by Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson. Excerpted from Volume I of The Ante-Nicene Fathers (Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson, editors); American Edition copyright © 1885. Electronic version copyright © 1997 by New Advent, Inc.).

Apparently Anicetus conceded enough (such as about Polycarp’s position on that and probably about Marcion—who Anicetus agreed was a heretic) that no recorded major ‘blowup’ between the two survived. It appears that Anicetus, tried to satisfy Polycarp to some degree, and tried to appear not to be a complete heretic.

But were the churches in Asia Minor and Rome truly in peace after that?

The Catholic monk Epiphanius wrote,

For long ago, even from the earliest days, the Passover was celebrated at different times in the church…In the time of Polycarp and Victor, the east was at odds with the west and they would not accept letters of commendation from each other (Epiphanius. The Panarion of Epiphanius of Salamis, Books II and III (Sects 47-80), De Fide). Section VI, Verse 9,7. Translated by Frank Williams. EJ Brill, New York, 1994, p.411).

It appears likely that Polycarp, when he returned to Asia Minor, would have told the Christians there that he was successful in turning some away from heretics such as Marcion and Valentinus. He probably was so disgusted by his Roman experience that he let those in Asia Minor know that they should not receive doctrine or other instruction from any in Rome–he also specifically would not change Passover observance to Sunday. This seems to be confirmed by Polycrates’ writings a few decades later.

What these writings in this section seem to show is that the aged Polycarp went to Rome to primarily deal with Gnostic heretics that claimed to be Christian. It was Polycarp, and no “bishop of Rome”, who was successful in turning Christians away from these heretics. It was Polycarp, and no Roman bishop, who was the faithful “heretic fighter” in the second century.

Other leaders in Asia Minor also are recorded as fighting heretics–heretics that Rome often tolerated for decades or even longer.

For more details on those and other historical points, please see the following articles:

Location of the Early Church: Another Look at Ephesus, Smyrna, and Rome What actually happened to the primitive Church? And did the Bible tell about this in advance?
Polycarp’s Letter to the Philippians Did Polycarp refer to all the books in the New Testament? This is Roberts and Donaldson’s translation, corrected by me in one place, where they made a small error in translating Latin by omitting one word.  It is also annotated with scriptures to demonstrate that Polycarp did have the New Testament canon.
Polycarp of Smyrna: The Heretic Fighter Polycarp was the successor of the Apostle John and a major leader in Asia Minor. Do you know much about what he taught? Does the Living Church of God or the Church of Rome more faithfully follow his teachings and practices?
The History of Early Christianity Are you aware that what most people believe is not
Melito of Sardis Who was this 2nd Century Church Leader? What Old Testament did he list? What did he teach that most who call themselves Christian later change?
Thraseas Thraseas died circa 160 in Smyrna, but oversaw the churches from Eumenia.
Sagaris Sagaris died circa 166-167 and oversaw a church in Laodicea of Asia Minor.
Papirius He died circa 170 and oversaw churches from Smyrna.
Polycrates of Ephesus He was an early church leader that claimed to continue the practices of the Gospel, John, Philip, Melito, and Polycarp, while refusing to accept traditions that came from Rome.
Apollonius of Ephesus He died circa 210.
Theophilus of Antioch This is one of the second century leaders of some Christians in Antioch and is considered a Patriarch of the Greek Orthodox Church of Antioch.
Serapion of Antioch He was possibly a faithful third century leader in Antioch.
Apollinaris of Hierapolis He was an early church leader that may have known Melito and Polycarp; he also wrote about the Passover. what truly happened to the true Christian church? Do you know where the early church was based? Do you know what were the doctrines of the early church? Is your faith really based upon the truth or compromise?
What Do Roman Catholic Scholars Actually Teach About Early Church History? Although most believe that the Roman Catholic Church history teaches an unbroken line of succession of bishops beginning with Peter, with stories about most of them, Roman Catholic scholars know the truth of this matter. This eye-opening article is a must-read for any who really wants to know what Roman Catholic history actually admits about the early church.

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