Skip to main contentAccessibility feedback


Click to enlarge

Priscillianism. —This heresy originated in Spain in the fourth century and was derived from the Gnostic-Manichaean doctrines taught by Marcus, an Egyptian from Memphis. His first adherents were a lady named Agape and a rhetorician named Helpidius, through whose influence Priscillian “a man of noble birth, of great riches, bold, restless, eloquent, learned through much reading, very ready at debate and discussion” (Sulpicius Severus, “His. Sac.”, II, 46), was also enrolled. His high position and great gifts made him the leader of the party, and he became an ardent apostle of the new doctrines. Through his oratorical gifts and reputation for extreme asceticism he attracted a large following. Among those drawn to him were two bishops, Instantius and Salvianus. The adherents of the new sect organized themselves into an oath-bound society, the rapid spread of which attracted the attention of the Catholic Bishop of Cordova, Hyginus, who made known his fears to Idacius, Bishop of Emeritu, and, at the instance of the latter and of Ithacius of Ossanova, a synod was held at Saragossa in 380. Bishops were present at this synod not only from Spain but from Aquitaine. Though summoned, the Priscillianists refused to appear, and the synod pronounced sentence of excommunication against the four leaders, Instantius, Salvianus. Helpidius, and Priscillian. The enforcement of the synod’s decrees was committed to Ithacius, an impulsive and violent man. He failed to bring the heretics to terms, and, in defiance, Priscillian was ordained to the priesthood and appointed Bishop of Avila. Idacius and Ithacius appealed to the imperial authorities. The Emperor Gratian issued a decree which not only deprived the Priscillianists of the churches into which they had intruded themselves but sentenced Priscillian and his followers to exile. Instantius, Salvianus, and Priscillian proceeded to Rome to gain the aid of Pope Damasus in having this sentence revoked. Denied an audience, they went to Milan to make a similar request of St. Ambrose, but with the same result. They then resorted to intrigue and bribery at the Court with such success that they were not only freed from the sentence of exile, but permitted to regain possession of their churches in Spain, where, under the patronage of the imperial officials, they enjoyed such power as to compel Ithacius to withdraw from the country. He, in turn, appealed to Gratian, but before anything had been accomplished the emperor was murdered in Paris, and the usurper Maximus had taken his place. Maximus, wishing to curry favor with the orthodox party and to replenish his treasury through confiscations, gave orders for a synod, which was held in Bordeaux in 384. Instantius was first tried and condemned to deposition. Thereupon Priscillian appealed to the emperor at Trier. Ithacius acted as his accuser and was so vehement in his denunciations that St. Martin of Tours, who was then in Trier, intervened, and, after expressing his disapproval of bringing an ecclesiastical case before a civil tribunal, obtained from the emperor a promise not to carry his condemnation to the extent of shedding blood. After St. Martin had left the city, the emperor appointed the Prefect Evodius as judge. He found Priscillian and some others guilty of the crime of magic. This decision was reported to the emperor who put Priscillian and several of his followers to the sword; the property of others was confiscated and they were banished. The conduct of Ithacius immediately met with the severest reprobation. St. Martin, hearing what had taken place, returned to Trier and compelled the emperor to rescind an order to the military tribunes, already on their way to Spain to extirpate the heresy. There is no ground in the condemnation and death of Priscillian for the charge made against the Church of having invoked the civil authority to punish heretics. The pope censured not only the actions of Ithacius but also that of the emperor. St. Ambrose was equally stern in his denunciation of the case and some of the Gallican bishops, who were in Trier under the leadership of Theognistus, broke off communion with Ithacius, who was subsequently deposed from his see by a synod of Spanish bishops, and his friend and abettor, Idatius, was compelled to resign. The death of Priscillian and his followers had an unlooked-for sequel. The numbers and zeal of the heretics increased; those who were executed were venerated as saints and martyrs. The progress and spread of the heresy called for fresh measures of repression. In 400 a synod was held in Toledo at which many persons, among them two bishops, Symphonius and Dictinnius, were reconciled to the Church. Dictinnius was the author of a book “Libra” (Scales), a moral treatise from the Priscillianist viewpoint. The upheaval in the Spanish peninsula consequent on the invasion of the Vandals and the Suevi aided the spread of Priscillianism. So menacing was this revival that Orosius, a Spanish priest, wrote to St. Augustine (415) to enlist his aid in combating the heresy. Pope Leo at a later date took active steps for its repression and at his urgent insistence councils were held in 446 and 447 at Astorga, Toledo, and Galicia. In spite of these efforts the sect continued to spread during the fifth century. In the following century it commenced to decline, and after the Synod of Braga, held in 563, had legislated concerning it, it soon died out.

In regard to the doctrines and teaching of Priscillian and his sect, it is not necessary to go into the merits of the discussion as to whether Priscillian was guilty of the errors traditionally ascribed to him, whether he was really a heretic, or whether he was unjustly condemned—the object of misunderstanding and reprobation even in his lifetime and afterwards made to bear the burden of heretical opinions subsequently developed and associated with his name. The weight of evidence and the entire course of events in his lifetime make the supposition of his innocence extremely improbable. The discovery by Schepss of eleven treatises from his pen in a fifth-or sixth-century manuscript, in the library of the University of Wtirzburg, has not put an end to a controversy still involved in considerable difficulty. Kunstle (Antipriscilliana), who has examined all the testimony, has decided in favor of the traditional view, which alone seems capable of offering any adequate solution of the fact that the Church in Spain and Aquitaine was aroused to activity by the separatist tendency in the Priscillianist movement. The foundation of the doctrines of the Priscillianists was Gnostic-Manichean Dualism, a belief in the existence of two kingdoms, one of Light and one of Darkness. Angels and the souls of men were said to be severed from the substance of the Deity. Human souls were intended to conquer the Kingdom of Darkness, but fell and were imprisoned in material bodies. Thus both kingdoms were represented in man, and hence a conflict symbolized on the side of Light by the Twelve Patriarchs, heavenly spirits, who corresponded to certain of man’s powers, and, on the side of Darkness, by the Signs of the Zodiac, the symbols of matter and the lower kingdom. The salvation of man consists in liberation from the domination of matter. The twelve heavenly spirits having failed to accomplish this release, the Savior came in a heavenly body, which appeared to be like that of other men, and through His doctrine and His apparent death released the souls of men from the influence of the material. These doctrines could be harmonized with the teaching of Scripture only by a strange system of exegesis, in which the liberal sense was entirely rejected, and an equally strange theory of personal inspiration. The Old Testament was received, but the narrative of creation was rejected. Several of the apocryphal Scriptures were acknowledged to be genuine and inspired. The ethical side of the Dualism of Priscillian with its low concept of nature gave rise to an indecent system of asceticism as well as to some peculiar liturgical observances, such as fasting on Sundays and on Christmas Day. Because their doctrines were esoteric and exoteric, and because it was believed that men in general could not understand the higher paths, the Priscillianists, or at least those of them who were enlightened, were permitted to tell lies for the sake of a holy end. It was because this doctrine was likely to be a scandal even to the faithful that Augustine wrote his famous work, “De mendacio”.


Did you like this content? Please help keep us ad-free
Enjoying this content?  Please support our mission!