Background to Controversy
Most of the early heresies were Trinitarian and Christological in nature, but Collyridianism stood alone as a heresy that sought to deify the Blessed Virgin Mary. Little is known about the movement’s theology. Not even the names of the group’s leaders are mentioned by writers of the time. This sect’s excessive Marian devotion developed into the idolatry of Mary worship. This aberration grew out of the Church’s rightful veneration of Mary as ever-virgin, Mother of God, and powerful heavenly intercessor, but crossed the line of orthodoxy when certain Christians began to worship Mary as divine. Details about the Collyridians are scanty, but one of the few specifics we know of them is that at their liturgical service bread was offered as a sacrifice to Mary.
The heresy of the Collyridians was very simple: They worshiped Mary. This was in direct conflict with the Catholic Church’s condemnation of idolatry, which had been condemned by God himself: “You shall have no other gods before me. You shall not make for yourself a graven image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth; you shall not bow down to them or serve them; for I the Lord your God am a jealous God” (Ex. 20:3-5; cf. Deut. 5:7, 6:14; 1 Cor. 4:8-6, 10:19-20; Eph. 5:5). This proscription applies not just to statue worship, but to the worship of anything besides God.
It is ironic that the most diligent opponent of the Collyridians was Epiphanius (315-403), the bishop of Salamis. He was widely renowned for his learning and holy asceticism and was a close friend of Jerome, but he was also a rude and querulous man who garnered many enemies, some of whom were fellow bishops.
Though Epiphanius’s efforts to quash the Collyridians were laudable and his theological and scriptural reasoning against their idolatry was sound, he himself was not free from error in the area of honoring God’s friends. The vehemence of his opposition to the Collyridians’ idolatry was rivaled by his fanatical opposition to icons.
In a description that is reminiscent of certain modern-day Fundamentalist foes of Catholic Marian doctrines and of venerating icons and images, patristics scholar Aloys Dirksen, C.P.P.S., describes Epiphanius as having a “fiery temperament and unreasonable impetuosity . . . that made the calm objectivity necessary for scholarly work impossible for him. His narrow-mindedness is apparent in the part he played in the Origenist controversy and the violence with which he attacked the veneration of images.
“He considered this idolatry, and in his testament he anathematized anyone who would even gaze upon a picture of the Logos-God. His temperament made him suspicious of heresy everywhere, and he made capital of even the smallest inaccuracy of statement. It appeared impossible for him to see any viewpoint but his own. Since he lacked critical acumen and was a poor, even a tiresome writer, his works would be of little value if it were not for his many quotations [of others]. He thus saved much that would otherwise have been lost to us” (Elementary Patrology [St. Louis: Herder, 1959], 117).
Epiphanius wrote against the Collyridians in his most important apologetic work, Panarion (Medicine Box [374-377]), a tour-de-force refutation of over eighty heresies known to him. He refuted the two extreme and diametrically opposed Marian heresies of his day, Collyridianism (which overly exalted Mary) and Antidicomarianitism, an Arabian movement that debased Mary’s status and virtues, to the point of claiming “that holy Mary had intercourse with a man, that is to say, Joseph, after the birth of Christ” (Panarion 78:1).
The Collyridians were primarily women who developed a syncretistic combination of Catholicism and pag an goddess cult customs. After describing the “awful and b.asphemous ceremony,” in which they adorn a chair or a square throne and spread a linen cloth over it for their ritual, Epiphanius writes, “Certain women there in Arabia have introduced this absurd teaching from Thracia: how they offer up a sacrifice of bread rolls in the name of the ever-Virgin Mary, and all partake of this bread” (Panarion 78:13). He emphasizes the difference between Mary and God: “It is not right to honor the saints beyond their due” (ibid. 78:23); “Now the body of Mary was indeed holy, but it was not God; the Virgin was indeed a virgin and revered, but she was not given to us for worship, but she herself worshiped him who was born in the flesh from her. . . . Honor Mary, but let the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit be worshiped, but let no one worship Mary, . . . even though Mary is most beautiful and holy and venerable, yet she is not to be worshiped” (ibid. 79:1, 4).
With Epiphanius we can say that anyone who worships Mary or any other creature is committing idolatry and must be rebuked. We should look to Scripture, at the case of the angel who rebuked John for his temptation to idolatry, to see how to admonish modern-day Collyridians: “At this I fell at his feet to worship him. But he said to me, `Do not do it! I am a fellow servant with you and with your brothers who hold to the testimony of Jesus. Worship God!'” (Rev. 19:10). No doubt, our Lady herself would say this to any who would seek to worship her.
Collyridianism is seen today in various forms. Those “hyper-Marian” groups and writers who overly exalt Mary and focus on her to the exclusion (or near exclusion) of Christ are guilty of something approaching idolatry. Modern feminism is the source of a recycled Collyridianism that worships a “mother goddess” and seeks to “re-image” God in female terms.