« Primianus, Donatist bp. of Carthage Priscillianus and Priscillianism, Priscillian Priscus, St. archbp. of Lyons »

Priscillianus and Priscillianism, Priscillian

Priscillianus and Priscillianism. The Priscillianists, whose doctrines were Manichean and Gnostic in character, were organized as a sect by their founder Priscillian. The spread of the heresy was not wide either in time or space. The sect sprang up and flourished in Spain during the last third of the 4th cent. in the reigns of the emperors Gratian and Maximus. After the synod of Saragossa, 381, it ramified into Aquitaine, but never took deep root beyond the Pyrenees. Where the heresy first appeared in Spain is unrecorded. There it spread through most provinces, especially in cities. The agitation at Cordova, Merida, Avila, Astorga, Saragossa, Toledo, Braga, sufficiently indicates its prevalence and popularity. The council of Bordeaux, 384, followed by the violent measures of Maximus, intensified for a while the enthusiasm of Priscillian's adherents. But in 390, at the synod of Toledo, many leading Priscillianists recanted and were admitted to church communion. The sect continued to diminish in number. Pope Leo I. exerted himself vigorously to repress it. It lingered in Spain till the middle of the 5th cent. After the council of Toledo, 447, and that at Braga in Galicia, 448 especially held against them, they disappear from history. Priscillianism became a remembrance and a suspicion.

Marcus, a native of Memphis in Egypt, introduced the Gnostic and Manichean heresies. Nothing is known of his life beyond his Egyptian origin, his coming to Spain, and his teaching. Two of his followers were Agape, a Spanish lady, and Helpidius, a rhetorician. Their convert was the layman Priscillian, whose place of birth or residence is unknown. He was of good family, wealthy, and well educated. He became at once an ardent proselyte; an apostle of the Oriental doctrines. His 858character is described by the contemporary historian Sulpicius Severus, in his Sacred History (ii. 46). Eloquent, learned, pious, sincere, austere, ardent, and zealous, Priscillian was well fitted to be the apostle and founder of a sect. Modifying and framing the Oriental doctrines into a system of his own, he soon became their able exponent and advocate. Attracting a large following, he organized them into a religious society. Many of the wealthy and noble, and a great number of the people, received his teaching. Some bishops, as well as clergy and laity, became his disciples. The Gnostic mysticism spread rapidly and widely in all Spain.

Among Priscillian's first and most devoted followers were two bishops, Instantius and Salvianus, in the S. of Spain. Adyginus, bp. of Cordova, was the first to oppose the rising sect. He reported the matter to Idatius, bp. of Emerita (Merida), and took counsel with him. Their conference led to an organized movement against the new errors. All S. Spain became agitated by the controversy. Idatius is blamed as too rough and violent. By intolerant severity he promoted rather than prevented the spread of the sect. Adyginus, dissatisfied with his colleague, became rather the protector of the Priscillianists and incurred thereby much reproach and odium. At length a synod was to be held at Caesar-Augusta (Saragossa) on the Ebro, a site sufficiently far north from the localities where the Priscillianists and the orthodox were in hostility to be neutral ground, and also having the advantage of nearness to Gaul. It was proposed to gather there the bishops of Spain and Aquitaine. The synod was held in 380. The Priscillianists did not venture to appear. In their absence their opinions were condemned. The four leaders, Instantius and Salvianus the bishops, Helpidius and Priscillian the laymen, were excommunicated. The bp. of Cordova fell under the lash of the leaders of the synod. He had received into terms of communion some of the heretics. The council anathematized all who shared or connived at the new errors of faith and practice. The task of promulgating the decrees and executing the ecclesiastical sentences was given to Ithacius, bp. of Sossuba. The important and lamentable result of the synod was the assumption by Ithacius of the leadership of the persecuting party.

A preconcerted counter-movement now began on the part of the Priscillianists. At the hands of Instantius and Salvianus, Priscillian received episcopal ordination. His see was Avila (Abila) on the Adaja, a tributary of the Douro, midway between Salamanca and Madrid (Hieron. de Script. Eccl.). This measure of defiance shewed the strength of his party. It led to further progress towards persecution. On behalf of the church authorities, Idacius and Ithacius applied to the secular government. Aid was brought against the heretics. Powers were asked for execution of the decree of the synod, and in 381 Gratian granted a rescript, excluding all heretics from the use of the churches and ordering them to be driven into exile. The Priscillianists were thus cut off from civil protection. Vigorous defensive measures were necessary to their very existence. An appeal was proposed by them to the two most eminent bishops of the West, Damasus of Rome and Ambrose of Milan. Their influence, it was hoped, might lead to a rescinding of the imperial decision. Instantius, Salvianus, and Priscillian went to Rome to clear themselves and their party in the papal court. On their way they penetrated into Interior Aquitaine, perhaps to try measures of conciliation among the bishops of that province, who had condemned them unseen and unknown at Saragossa: The seeds of the heresy were sown by them as they travelled. Elusa (Eluso) near Eauze, a town on the Gelise near Auch, is especially mentioned. All the church centres were, however, hostile to them. They were vigorously repulsed from Bordeaux (Burdegala), by the vigilance of bp. Delphinus. On their journey they were joined by many from Gaul whom they had infected with their errors. Euchrocia and her daughter Procula, amongst these, ministered of their substance to Priscillian and his colleagues. A promiscuous crowd of others, especially women, are mentioned. In consequence, injurious reports, probably calumnies, were vigorously circulated against Priscillian and his retinue.

On their arrival at Rome the Priscillianists were repulsed by pope Damasus. They retraced their steps to Milan, and found Ambrose, whose power and reputation were at their height, steadily opposed to them.

The Priscillianists put on a bold front and began aggressive measures against their assailants. The wealth of Priscillian and his followers was liberally employed. "The silver spears" were now in the hands of the partisans on both sides. Macedonius, the master of the offices (magister officiorum), was won over to the interests of Priscillian and his party. By his powerful influence a rescript from Gratian protecting them was obtained. The Priscillianists were to be restored to their churches and sees. Instantius and Priscillian, returning to Spain, regained their sees and churches. All things seemed turned in their favour. Idacius and Ithacius, though for the moment powerless, had not ceased to make a show of resistance. The Priscillianists charged them with causing divisions and disturbing the peace of the church, and Ithacius was compelled to fly. At Trèves resided the Caesar who ruled Gaul, Spain, and Britain. Ithacius escaped thither from Spain. Gregory, the prefect there, warmly espoused his cause and strove to bring the complaints of the orthodox bishops again before Gratian. The Priscillianists had, however, friends at court powerful enough to ward off the danger. The cause was taken out of the hands of Gregory and transferred to the court of Volventius the vicar of Spain.

An unlooked-for political change now came. The overthrow and assassination at Paris of the unpopular Gratian, the usurpation of the purple by Clemens Maximus, his proclamation as emperor by his soldiers in Britain, his triumphant entrance into Gaul, with the consequent official changes, destroyed all the bright hopes of the Priscillianists. The fortunes of their adversaries revived. On the arrival of Maximus at Trèves in 384 Ithacius brought a formal accusation with heavy charges against 859Priscillian and his followers. Maximus, a Spaniard by birth, listened to the Spanish bishops and reversed the vacillating policy of Gratian, treating the matter not as one of ecclesiastical rivalry, but as one of morality and society. In his letter afterwards to Siricius, who succeeded Damasus in 384 in the see of Rome, he expressly dwells upon these points and glories in the part he had consequently taken against the heresy of Priscillian. Both parties were summoned to a synod at Bordeaux in 385. Instantius and Priscillian were the first to appear. Instantius was declared to have forfeited his bishopric. Priscillian resolved to forestall the expected hostile judgment and "appeal unto Caesar." No protest was made. The appeal was allowed. A purely spiritual offence was remitted for criminal trial to a secular tribunal. In due course both parties appeared before Maximus at Trèves.

At Trèves there was one at this crisis of the church whose prophetic insight saw the real significance of the issues at stake, Martin, bp. of Tours, whose influence was then at its height. Through his mediation between the contending parties, the trial of Priscillian was delayed, Maximus for a while yielding to his protests, even consenting to promise him that no life should be sacrificed. But at last St. Martin, at the call of other duties, was obliged to withdraw from Trèves. The emperor was now surrounded by other influences. By Idacius and Ithacius, ably supported by two bishops of a like stamp, Magnus and Rufus, powerful at court, Maximus was unremittingly urged to take severe measures.

The trial of the Priscillianists, once resolved upon, was soon brought about and they became a defenceless prey to their enemies. Their "appeal unto Caesar" was truly an appeal to a pitiless Nero. As a stroke of state policy nothing could be wiser in the eyes of the adherents of Maximus than their destruction. Both pagan and Christian authorities attribute mercenary motives to the emperor and state that the possessions of the rich Priscillian and of his followers excited his cupidity (Sulp. Sev. Dialog. iii. 9; Panegyr. of Lat. Pac. Drep. on Theodosius, Panegyr. Vet. xvi. 29). At the same time there could not be a more brilliant inauguration of the new reign than a vigorous assertion of orthodoxy on the lines of the now famous Theodosian decrees.

Priscillian and his chief followers were condemned to death by the imperial consistory at Trèves. Several others, after confiscation of their goods, were banished to the Scilly Isles, others into Gaul. Priscillian is recorded as the first of those who suffered death ("gladio perempti"). With him died two presbyters, lately become disciples, Felicissimus and Armenius, and Latronianus a poet and Euchrocia the rich and noble matron of Bordeaux. Instantius, deposed from his bishopric by the synod of Bordeaux, and Tiberianus were banished to the desolate Scilly Isles. Asarinus and Aurelius, two deacons, were executed. Tertullus, Potamius, and Johannes, as meaner followers who turned king's evidence, were temporarily banished within Gaul.

The immediate consequences were not reassuring to the persecuting party. At Trèves a violent strife arose between the bishops present on the merits of Priscillian's execution. Theognistes, a bishop of independent mind, boldly led the non-contents, refusing church communion to Ithacius and the others guilty of the judicial bloodshed. In Spain the Priscillianist enthusiasm was for a while intensified. The number of followers grew. The bodies of those who had suffered at Trèves were brought to Spain and their obsequies celebrated with great pomp. Priscillian, before revered as a saint, was now, says Sulpicius, worshipped as a martyr. Signs were not wanting, and terrified the orthodox,, that the Priscillianist society aimed at shrouding themselves under the guise of a secret religious association.

Additional severities were proposed. Maximus resolved to send military tribunes to Spain with unlimited powers. They were to investigate charges of heresy, examine heretics, take life and property from the guilty. They were men little likely to temper justice with mercy. At this juncture Martin of Tours returned to Trèves. No efforts could induce him to be reconciled to the promoters and abettors of the late executions. The persuasion and threats of the emperor failing to move him, he was dismissed the imperial presence in anger. Tidings reached Martin that the tribunes had been really sent to Spain. He hurried to the palace, though it was night, and agreed to unite with the bishops in church fellowship. The emperor yielded to his importunity and Martin's firmness and zeal on the side of humanity were rewarded. The tribunes were recalled and the peninsula spared the horrors of a religious proscription.

The schism continued some time between those that approved and those that condemned the severities against Priscillian. For 15 years the contention was extreme, and the merits of the controversy long continued to be canvassed. The violent means had certainly not extinguished the heresy, which seemed even to take deeper root in Spain. In 400 at a council at Toledo many Priscillianists came over and were readmitted to Catholic communion. Amongst these was Dictinnius, a Priscillianist bishop, author of The Scales (Libra), wherein Priscillianist opinions were expounded and advocated. In 415 a Spanish presbyter, Orosius, wrote to Augustine concerning the sect. A long letter of Augustine is extant, written to Ceretius, a bishop, respecting the apocryphal Priscillianist Scriptures, especially a hymn attributed to Christ. Forty years later Turribius, bp. of Astorga, wrote in sorrow and perplexity to pope Leo I., asking advice for dealing with these insidious and dangerous adversaries. Two councils pursuant to Leo's recommendation were held: one at Toledo in 447, the other at Braga in Galicia in 448, where Priscillianism was condemned with the usual anathemas. A last contemporary mention of the Priscillianists comes in combination with the Arians, in the Acts of the council of Braga, in 563.

No ancient writer has given an accurate account of the Priscillianist doctrine. Our knowledge has to be gathered from the meagre accounts of their adversaries, the correspondence of eminent men of the time, the acts and canons of councils, the church histories, and a few verbal allusions in contemporary pagan 860writers. The Priscillianist system, already sufficiently dark and perplexed, has had new obscurity added by unstinted misrepresentation. The general outline may be made out of their opinions, fantastic allegories, daring cosmogonies, astrological fancies, combined with the severest asceticism. It is easier to compare the general resemblances of their doctrine to Cabalism, Syrian and Egyptian Gnosticism, Manicheism, Persian and Indian Orientalism, than to detect, analyse, and assign the differences.

There are no authentic extant records of the Priscillianist writers. A fragment of a letter of Priscillian himself has come down to us in quotation (Orosii Common. in Aug. Op.). There are allusions to a multitude of apocryphal scriptures which they used, thus differing from most heretical sects in accepting all apocryphal and canonical books as scripture, explaining and adapting them to their purpose in a mystical manner.

Our clearest account of their tenets is in the controversial correspondence slightly later than Priscillian, between Leo the Great and Turribius, bp. of Astorga. The latter summed up the doctrines in 16 articles. Leo replied in a lengthy epistle, commenting seriatim on each proposition (Leo, Ep. xv.).

(1) Their wild cosmical speculations were based on the bold Gnostic and Manichean conceptions of a primeval dualism. The two opposite realms of light and darkness, in eternal antagonism, were their basis.

(2) Their anti-materialism led them very far from the sublime simplicity of Scripture. Perplexed by the insoluble problem of the origin of sin, they indulged in most fantastic dreams and myths.

(3) The astrological fatalism which pope Leo condemned so sternly as subversive of all moral distinctions was a striking peculiarity (Leo, Ep. xv. 11–12). They believed the 12 signs of the Zodiac to have a mysterious supremacy over the members of the body.

(4) Their Christology is difficult to gather. If they held a Trinity at all, it was but a Trinity of names. Their adversaries accused them of Arianism and Sabellianism. Leo sharply criticizes their application and interpretation of the Scripture attributive of the Redeemer, "the Only-begotten."

(5) Their rigid asceticism resulted directly from their idea of the innate evil of matter. Marriage was proscribed; austerities of all sorts required.

(6) Their moral system plainly deserves the charge of dissimulation. Holding an esoteric and exoteric doctrine, they, with some other theosophic sects, affirmed falsehood allowable for a holy end; absolute veracity only binding between fellow-members. To the unenlightened they need not always and absolutely state the whole truth. This looseness of principle they supported by Scripture, distorting, e.g., Eph. iv. 25 in support of their practice. It was a Priscillianist habit to affect to agree with the multitude, making allowance for what they considered their fleshly notions, and to conceal from them what they regarded them as incapable of comprehending (Dictinnius in Libra). In the agitation of controversy some church ecclesiastics were in favour of fighting the Priscillianists with their own weapons. Augustine's treatise de Mendacio was expressly written against such laxity. It is easy to see how such practice arose from their principles. We may illustrate it by their Gnostic ideas about Scripture. The Christian Scripture was to them an imperfect revelation. What the Jewish religion was to Christianity, that the Priscillianists considered Christianity was with regard to their own speculations. As the O.T. was full of types and shadows of Christianity, so the N.T. in their hands became a figurative and symbolical exposition and veil of Priscillianism. The outer form was for the ignorant and profane; the inner truth for the wise and initiated. The grace of faith was fitted only for the rude mass of men; to know was the vocation of the privileged, the spiritual, the elect. A step further led the Priscillianist to disregard moral distinctions and believe himself entitled to prevaricate, which often led to things still worse, in his dealings with the common herd (cf. Mansel, Gnostic Heresies, lect. xii. p. 196; ix. p. 135; Neander, Ch. Hist. ii. p. 26). See Priscill. qua Supersunt, etc. accedit Orosii Commonitorum, etc. (Vienna, 1889), in Corpus Scr. Eccl. Lat. xviii.


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