I recently posted about the enduring influence of Dualist versions of Christianity, the idea that the material world is a diabolic creation, from which Christ came to free us. These views were widespread and enduring in the early and medieval church, and flourished somewhere in all eras prior to the fourteenth century – even later in some regions.  I am intrigued both by the enduring appeal of such ideas, and their distinctive use of Biblical texts.

Around 970, the Orthodox Presbyter Cosmas preached furiously against the Bogomil heretics who were gaining ground so rapidly across the Balkans. He condemned their views, which exactly followed the Dualist “package” I have already described. Because matter was evil, they rejected any religious symbols that used it, or any institution that taught their use. That meant rejecting crosses, icons, churches, and all sacraments, including the eucharist and baptism. “And how can they call themselves Christians, when they don’t have priests to baptize them, when they don’t make the sign of the cross, when they don’t sing priestly hymns and don’t respect priests?” They scorned the veneration of the Virgin Mary. Around 1100, a Byzantine writer recorded a Bogomil leader speaking in equally damning terms of the institutional church: “And as for the churches, woe is me – he called our sacred churches the temples of devils, and our consecration of the body and blood of our one and greatest High Priest and Victim he considered and condemned as worthless.”

And where did they get these monstrous ideas? Why, largely from the gospels themselves. When you read the views of Dualist churches like the Bogomils and Albigensians, you are immediately struck by how thoroughly immersed they are in the New Testament, and especially the gospels. Given that limitation, and without the vital structure provided by the Old Testament (which they rejected), they are able to deploy their texts quite consistently.

Now, orthodox believers had long protested against heretical misuse of scripture. As far back as the second century, Irenaeus complained that “In like manner do these persons patch together old wives’ fables, and then endeavor, by violently drawing away from their proper connection, words, expressions, and parables whenever found, to adapt the oracles of God to their baseless fictions.” (See Peter Leithart’s recent post on this at First Things).

Medieval Dualists were  creative in rooting their doctrines in scripture. A number of texts can be used to support the idea that the Devil is the Lord of the present world. Bogomils cited the temptations in the wilderness to prove that the Devil held power over the world, and could therefore offer it to Jesus (Matthew 4.8-9). Jesus himself speaks of the Devil as Lord of this World (ho tou kosmou archon, John 14.30). Many of the texts commonly used today to support predestination also lend themselves to those purposes, especially the parable of the wheat and the tares (Matthew 13.24-30).

If the world is of the Devil, then a church that claims material power and acts sacramentally must be his servant.

Cosmas reports one distinctive reading:

Having heard the parable in the gospels about the two sons, they consider Christ the older son, and the younger one who deceived his father they consider the Devil, and they call him “Mammon,” and they call him the creator and builder of the things of the earth. And he commanded men to marry, to eat meat, and to drink wine. And while simply defaming everything of ours, they consider themselves heavenly dwellers, and people who marry and live in this world they call the “servants of Mammon.”

Bogomils drew on the puzzling parable of the unjust steward (Luke 16.1-13), which they saw as an account of the revolt of the fallen angels. In this reading, Satan/Satanael himself was the “steward” who used those material promises to lure other angels into rebellion, forgiving their “debts.”  (Janet Hamilton and Bernard Hamilton, eds., Christian Dualist Heresies in the Byzantine World, 183).

Revelation too offered several valuable passages that could be read to justify Dualist theology.

It would be intriguing in fact to compile a list of these passages that so inspired dissident groups, a kind of Heretics’ Bible. Just which texts, especially from the gospels, lend themselves so powerfully to religious dissidence? I suspect we would find the same passages reused time and again through the centuries.

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  • Boze Herrington

    Fascinating. As someone who interacts with modern-day dualists on a near-daily basis, I can honestly say that some of these mediaeval views are close to being the “orthodox” position in conservative Protestantism.

    One passage that I hear quoted constantly is 1 John 2:15-17, about the dangers of loving the world. Folks hear this and naturally assume that “the world” means everyone who is not a fundamental, “Bible-believing” Christian, an interpretation which renders the greater part of the world’s science, art, literature, history, and philosophy unnecessary or depraved. (Christians are surprised when I tell them that, historically, this view is actually closer to the spirit of fundamentalist Islam than it is to traditional Christianity). I wrote a lengthy blog post about it here:

  • philipjenkins

    You make a great point. Thanks for the note about that particular verse.

  • philipjenkins


  • Quid

    You can use Bible quotes to support almost any belief no matter how ridiculous, because every verse in the Bible is subject to interpretation. If you read the Bible as a whole, however, it clearly rejects dualism. Dualism identifies the body and the physical world as evil, but in Genesis God creates man out of the clay and declares him “good.” It’s the same with the Incarnation. Christ physically becomes man, but if man’s body was evil, the Incarnation would mean Christ is participating in evil himself which is impossible.

  • philipjenkins

    Yes indeed – which is why the Dualists rejected those very books as diabolically inspired. Part of their argument was that Christ came to reject the God of the Old Testament.

  • Quid

    It’s interesting. Most modern Dualists I talk to aren’t willing to go that far. They don’t even directly say that the body is evil, just that it’s unimportant or irrelevant next to the soul. Christian theology centers around the unity of man-body and soul. Most Christians nowadays seem to forget the body is important as well. It’s interesting to see what the original dualists were like especially since they carried their philosophy to its natural end.

  • philipjenkins

    “Most Christians nowadays seem to forget the body is important as well.” Indeed, or many do just that.