A new Messalianism in Byzantium

The first of these supplementary studies will look at the possibility of illuminist influence from Eastern Christians in Byzantium.  In his Liber Concordiae, the abbot Joachim noted that the Greek Church had been persecuting

“those who walk in the ways of the Spirit, right up to the present time.”[1]

Was Joachim referring to the persecution of mystics labelled ‘Euchite’ or ‘Messalian’ in 12th-century Byzantium?  The terms ‘Euchite’ and ‘Messalian’ were derived respectively from the Greek and Syriac languages and they both had the same meaning: those who put an enormous emphasis on prayer.[2]  They were names from history.  They had been used to denote an ancient (4th-7th century) Eastern Christian heresy, which did not put much faith in the efficacy of the sacraments.  It had taught that only a complete realignment of an individual’s life, through constant communication with the Holy Spirit in prayer, could bring that person to perfection and keep him free from temptation.  This was described, by contemporaries, as driving out the indwelling demon, or replacing the demon by the Holy Spirit.[3]  These Euchites or Messalians were also called Enthusiasts (meaning ‘possessed by god’).

There is no reason to suppose that what was called ‘Messalianism’ in the twelfth century had any direct connection with the earlier heresy; but the name was presumably resurrected to reflect some similarity in doctrine, if only on the importance of the Holy Spirit.  It is very difficult to characterise 12th-century ‘Messalianism’, for two main reasons.  Firstly, contemporary commentators harked back to classical accounts, to inform their understanding of this new tendency, often just repeating what had been said in the distant past.  Secondly, it is almost impossible to separate this phenomenon from the dualist heresy of Bogomilism, which was spreading through Byzantium at the time.

Trying to distinguish between ‘Messalian’ and Bogomil ideas

Bogomilism was a dualist religion.  Dualist religion believes that there are two opposing creations, which are mixed together in our universe.  One is angelic, spiritual and good, and is worth striving for.  The other is natural, material and evil, and must be shunned.  Two types of dualist heresy were flourishing in the Byzantine Empire at this time, the old-established Paulician heresy (originally from Armenia, with a strong community at this time in Thrace) and the more recent Bogomil heresy (a successful Bulgarian popular movement, which had probably been influenced by the Paulicians).  Bogomil missionaries were now moving into the Byzantine capital itself, Constantinople.

In the twelfth century, the connection (or confusion) in Greek minds between Bogomilism and Messalianism was remarkable.  Almost all mentions of heresy at this time in Byzantium conflate the two.  Euthymius Zigabenus was commissioned to write an encyclopaedia of heresies in the early 12th century, after a Constantinople physician called Basil had been found to be part of a successful Bogomil mission among the capital’s élite.  Basil had been tried and condemned to death in about 1098.[4]  In his piece on the Bogomil heresy, Zigabenus said that it was not much older than his generation and was part of the heresy of the Messalians.[5]  He based his description of the Messalian heresy almost completely upon past accounts of the original Messalians, but he did mention two new doctrines: both of them were dualist and Bogomil.[6] 

Anna Komnene, his contemporary, traced the Bogomils back to a fusion of Paulicianism and Messalianism.[7]  A sermon against dualism, commemorating Basil’s famous trial, called it “the foul heresy of the Messalians”.[8]  The Synod of Constantinople of 1140 condemned the writings of Constantine Chrysomallos as

“more absurd than the teachings of the Enthusiasts and the Bogomils.”[9]

Theodore Blakhernites was another priest who was accused of teaching Messalian doctrines.[10]  The abjuration formula for Bogomil converts (i.e. their undertaking no longer to hold certain condemned doctrines) referred to the heresy as that of the atheist Messalians, also known as Phundaites, Bogomils, Euchites, Enthusiasts etc.[11]  The Treatise on Demons, falsely attributed to the 11th-century philosopher, Psellos, and now thought to be by Nicholas of Methone, who died in about 1166, described dualist heretics as Enthusiasts and Euchites.[12]

Information from Euthymius Zigabenus

Can anything be known of the Messalian (let us call it Neo-Messalian) element in all this confusion?  If one looks at Zigabenus’ detailed and studious work on twelfth-century Bogomilism in his encyclopaedia of heresy, The Dogmatic Panoply, and eliminates all those doctrines which are

a) dualist and world-renouncing (i.e. in the Bogomil tradition),

b) the usual stereotypes about devil-worship, infanticide, hypocrisy etc.,

c) extracted from ancient attacks on the original Messalians, – such as that of Timotheus of Constantinople, – and therefore likely to be out of date,

this should leave only doctrines that are new and different, which might be those that contemporaries categorised as Messalian.

This process leaves only two otherwise unaccountable teachings.  The first was that there was neither Son nor Spirit for the first 5000 years of history, and that after another 5033 years, the Trinity would return to Unity.[13]  This may suggest that these heretics recognised an overall pattern in history, connected to a progressive revelation of the Trinity.  If the Son and the Spirit were not active in the first 5000 years, God the Father must have been working alone in those 5000 years, i.e. the time of the Old Testament.  Then for 33 years (i.e. during the lifetime of Jesus Christ) the Father and the Son worked together.  For the final 5000 years, all three members of the Trinity are at work.  At the end of time, everything will be absorbed into the unity of God.

The second new and curious teaching was that there were two grades among the initiated,[14] and those in the higher grade were filled with the Holy Spirit, and were called theotokoi (bearers of God) because, like Mary, they were able to give birth to the Word of God through the Holy Spirit.  Their meeting place was therefore called a Bethlehem, because there Christ was born again in them.[15]  This seems to emphasise an illuminist view of individual perfectibility, which will become clearer later.

Chrysomallos and Blakhernites as ‘Messalians’

For a generation after Basil’s trial, contemporary sources were silent concerning heresy.  Then the 1140s brought a number of heresy scares, which increased intolerance, and led to the persecution of those who were considered unusually pious or ascetic.  In 1140, the monk Constantine Chrysomallos was posthumously condemned as a heretic, when some of his writings, called Centuries (series of short chapters), were discovered in certain monasteries near the capital.[16]  His mystical method, according to the historian, Milan Loos, was entirely based on instructing the initiate how to perceive the presence of the Holy Spirit.  He did not believe that infant baptism was sufficient by itself: adult Christians required a further initiation, so that they could accept the Holy Spirit as their authority and guide.[17]

Later, a certain Pamphilos was accused of passing off Chrysomallos’ work as The Golden Maxims of Theology, a reference to the Chapters of Symeon the New Theologian.[18]  The historian, Jean Gouillard, has recently noticed that the description of a lost tract by Chrysomallos fits exactly the contents of the Eighth Discourse of Symeon the New Theologian.  He went on to work out that Symeon’s Discourses seem to have been compiled, after his death, using not only his own work but also work by his disciples.[19]  Jean Gouillard thinks that Chrysomallos was unfairly condemned, that he was not Bogomil, and that if anyone wishes to call him heretical, then he must lay the same charge against Symeon the New Theologian.[20]

Similarly the historian, Richard Angold, thinks that Theodore Blakhernites, who was accused by Anna Komnene of spreading Messalian teachings, was only stressing the views of Symeon the New Theologian on the Christian importance of the vision of (and union with) God.[21]

Can the writings of Symeon the New Theologian (mid-10th to early 11th century)[22] provide any insight into what twelfth-century Byzantines called Messalianism?

Symeon the New Theologian and his scheme of history

Symeon gave up his position in the imperial civil service at the age of about 28, became a monk and then the head (higoumenos) of the monastery of St. Mamas, in the capital, had to hold on through several revolts by some of his monks, before resigning and going into exile at Paloukiton, just across the Bosphorus, where he spent his last years, with a number of hardy disciples, in an oratory that became their hermitage.[23]  He had both adherents and enemies.  The fact that he is distinguished from other Symeons by the label ‘the new theologian’ may suggest that some suspected him of inventing novelties.  It may have been a derogatory epithet.[24]

Like Joachim later on, he seems to have pondered on the division of history based on Biblical parallels.  God created everything in 7 days, except the Garden of Eden, which he planted afterwards:

“Why did He not make this garden He was planting on the seventh day? […] Because God, Who knows everything beforehand, brought creation into being with order and harmony, and established the seven days as a type of the seven ages [of the world].” [25]

Paradise was planted on the 8th ‘day’, as it were, but it is not counted as a day, because it symbolises the eternal life to come.[26]  There is no question of the seventh period being a Sabbath age (as in Joachim’s scheme), because it is the present time:

“Seven ages must be fulfilled according to the number of the seven days.  Six of them have already gone by, while the seventh is not yet finished.”[27]

He goes on to say that no-one is able to calculate the time of the end, only God.

In chapters 4 and 5 of his Second Ethical Discourse, it looks as if he is going to elucidate the different epochs: the first after Adam and Eve; the second after the cleansing of the Flood, when mankind is ‘reborn’ in Noah’s Ark; and the third after Abraham’s descendants become the chosen people and have their own ark, the ark of the covenant.[28]  Such a scheme is not continued, and chapter 6 shows that he has a threefold division in mind:

  1. before the Flood;
  2. the Jewish dispensation, the Old Testament;
  3. the New Testament dispensation, – with the Church as a new Noah’s Ark for the salvation of souls, and the Christians as the new chosen people.[29]

Looking forward to a new heaven and a new earth

He does also look ahead to the renovation of the world in the future, and the coming of a new heaven and a new earth, after the destruction of the present world.  Just as the corporeal life of the old Adam will be left behind for a new spiritual life with the second Adam (Christ), so

“shall the whole creation, in the same way and at God’s command, become, not what it was before, material and perceptible, […] but an immaterial, spiritual dwelling-place;”[30]

and he depicts the new earth as perfectly beautiful, green and flourishing, with a sun that shines seven times more brightly than our sun, etc.[31]  All this, however, will happen outside time, after the Second Coming of Christ.

This final eternity of bliss (the eighth ‘day’ of paradise) is called the “Day of the Lord”, because it will be a manifestation of Christ in all His glory:

“He alone will be at once ‘Day’ and God. […] He will be revealed to all as He is, and will fill all things with His light, and will be without evening, without end, a day of everlasting joy.”[32]

This will be bliss for those who are prepared for it,

“but for those who are in the darkness of the passions and spend their lives in the world, hungering for the things of this world, for them it will be fearful and they will experience it as unbearable fire.”[33]

He therefore exhorts his monks and his readers to seek to get as close as possible to God beforehand, to be baptised by fire and the spirit, to become a son of the light and of the day, so that he will be able to stand the brilliance of the Day of the Lord:

“Neither is he reproved by the light, for he has been illumined beforehand.  Nor is he put to the test and burned on entering this fire, for he has been tried already.”[34]

Becoming gods by adoption and god-bearers

Symeon stresses the importance of making oneself, during one’s time on earth, a “friend of God” and indeed “a god in so far as this is possible for men”.[35]  This would not sound so outrageous to Greek ears, where the ultimate end of theology is given as theosis (deification).[36]  This would only be realised in its fullness in the afterlife.[37]  He hopes that his followers will imitate Christ well enough to become “gods by adoption”, and he quotes Galatians 3:27 about “putting on Christ”.[38]  This is a recurring theme:

“The saints are become gods by adoption through having God indwelling them;” [39]


“God seeks nothing else from us men except that we do not sin; this alone.  But this is not a work of law; it is rather a careful guarding of the image and dignity from above.  In these things, affirmed in our nature and bearing the radiant garment of the Spirit, we shall abide in God and He in us.[40]  We shall be called good and sons of God by adoption.”[41]

Another recurrent theme is that a man who has let the Holy Spirit take charge inside him is, like Mary, a god-bearer (theotokos):

“When a man knows that these signs and wonders are taking place within him, he is truly a god-bearer, a vessel of wonder.  He has God indwelling, the all-holy Spirit himself who speaks and works in him all that Paul spoke about.”[42]

“All of us who believe in the same Son of God and Son of the ever-Virgin Theotokos, Mary, and who, believing, receive the Word concerning Him faithfully in our hearts, when we confess Him with our mouths and repent our former lawlessness from the depths of our souls, then immediately – just as God, the Word of the Father, entered into the Virgin’s womb, – even so do we receive the Word in us, as a kind of seed. […] We do not, of course, conceive Him bodily, as did the Virgin and Theotokos, but in a way which is at once spiritual and substantial.”[43]

This, at last, seems to explain the second of the unattributable, maybe Neo-Messalian, heresies from Euthymius Zigabenus’ Dogmatic Panoply: namely, that the initiates are called theotokoi.  There does, then, seem to be some relationship between the New Theology and what may be called Neo-Messalianism.

Two baptisms

Many suspected Byzantine heretics, including Chrysomallos,[44] were said to have encouraged the use of two initiation ceremonies or baptisms.  Symeon certainly believed that water baptism was insufficient, and that there needed to be a second baptism of the spirit;

“that baptism [which] Our Lord speaks about in the Gospels: ‘If a man is not born of water and the spirit, he will not enter the kingdom of heaven.’”[45]

“In the first baptism, water symbolises tears, and the oil of chrismation prefigures the inner anointing of the Spirit.  But the second baptism is no longer a type of the truth, but the truth itself.”[46]

In his Tenth Discourse, Symeon specifies that only those who are firm in the faith, who have arrived at perfect knowledge, and who have purified themselves, may come to this second baptism; and he refers to the incident, in Acts 8:14-17, when Peter and John were sent to those in Samaria, who had only been baptised with water in the name of Jesus.  They received the Holy Spirit only after Peter and John had instructed them and had laid their hands on their heads.[47]  This desire for a second baptism in the spirit is interesting in the light of later developments.  It would gain a place in Cistercian teaching; and it would become (if it was not already) the key initiation ceremony for the Bogomils.

Symeon the New Theologian on illumination by, and union with, the divine light      

It is by now quite clear that for Symeon, the inner illumination of the Holy Spirit is paramount.  In the Fifth Ethical Discourse, he tells the story of a disciple, who describes his vision of light, and is told by his spiritual father that he has seen God.  This is taken to be autobiographical.  When he next has the vision, a voice says to him:

“Yes, I am God, who for your sake became man.  And, as you see, I have made, and will make, you god.”[48]

Light is extremely important in all his writings.  His Third Theological Discourse ends with a long homily on the subject, of which the following extracts are tiny snatches:

“Everything to do with God is light. […] All that comes from him is light, and is given to us as arising from the light.  The light is life.  The light is the very kingdom itself. […] The light is Jesus Christ, the Saviour and King of the universe. […] His resurrection is light.  His face is light…”[49]

After a period of prayer and self-abnegation, a monk should receive illumination from the Holy Spirit, which will lead to an experience of peace and fulfilment, of union with God who is the all-encompassing light.

“When the mind is simple, or rather stripped of all conceptions and completely clothed in the simple light of God and hidden within it, it can find no other object in which it is established, to which it can direct the motion of its thought.  It remains in the depths of God’s light, and can do nothing outside. […] He is the supreme light, and for all those who have achieved it, the repose of all contemplation.”[50]

Symeon the New Theologian’s followers

It seems that the ‘spirituals’, who were being persecuted in Greece in Joachim’s time, were followers of a mystical tradition, based upon, or similar to, that which can be found in the writings by, or attributed to, Symeon the New Theologian.  It also seems that Byzantine Bogomilism was, as all the Byzantine commentators believed, a fusion of the ideas attributed to Symeon (the new Messalianism) with the popular dualist heresy from Bulgaria.

There would seem to have been good reasons for Joachim, as a radical Cistercian reformer, to have been attracted by the religious teaching of practitioners of the New Theology.  The original founders of the Cistercian movement seem to have been influenced by the 11th-century experiment at Vallombrosa (and its family of monasteries in Tuscany), which tried to combine the pure and ascetic life of the hermit with the shared Christian life of the monk.[51]  One principal inspiration for Vallombrosa’s founder was the practice at Camaldoli and associated hermitages,[52] created in the early eleventh century by a former monk from Ravenna, Romualdo,[53] who seems to have been influenced by Greek monk/hermits living in the area.  Had some of these Greeks brought the New Theology to the West?  There are certainly many similarities in the writings attributed to Symeon and those written by early Cistercians.  As examples, consider the ideas of certain Cistercians concerning teachings about second baptism, illumination, deification, the birth of Christ in the individual monk as in Mary etc. [54]

The New Theology may also have had a more immediate effect in the West, in the early eleventh century, although any link is far from proven.  The next piece will consider an outbreak of heresy in the 1020s, which may, or may not, be connected to the New Theology.  This is worth studying for its own sake by anyone familiar with the story of the Amalricians, because of some uncanny parallels between the two incidents.



[1] Liber Concordiae (S.44) 5:57, f.89r: “…persequuntur eos qui ambulant secundum spiritum usque in presentem diem.”  See M.Bloomfield (B.45) p.286.
[2] D.Obolensky (B.23) p.49.
[3] I.Hausherr (B.24) pp.329-350.
[4] J.& B.Hamilton (B.8) pp.40-41; R.Angold (B.24) pp.479ff.
[5] Euthymius Zigabenus (S.65) chap.27, col.1290D; Eng. transl. in J.& B.Hamilton (B.8) p.181.
[6] ibid. chap.26, col.1286C and col.1287B: that nature is evil, and that the Old Testament is rejected.
[7] Anna Komnene: The Alexiad,  Book 15, chap.8, transl. by Dawes (B.24) p.412; and by J.&B.Hamilton (B.8) p.175.
[8] Sermon on the Sunday of All Saints, transl. by J.& B.Hamilton (B.8) p.211. (It has been falsely attributed to the 11th century Patriarch, Xiphilinus: ibid. p.210.)
[9] Quoted by D.Obolensky (B.23) p.219; see J.&B.Hamilton (B.8) pp.212-4.
[10] D.Obolensky (B.23) p.202.
[11] J.& B.Hamilton (B.8) p.207.
[12] J.& B.Hamilton (B.8) pp.227-232; E.Renauld (B.24) pp.60-70.
[13] Euthymius Zigabenus:  Dogmatic Panoply (S.65) chap.27:3-4, Latin transl. col.1294; Eng. transl. J.& B.Hamilton (B.8) pp.182-3.
[14] Ibid. 27:16, col.1311B-C; in Eng. pp.189-190.
[15] Ibid. 27:22 (on Mary) & 27:28 (on Bethlehem), col.1318B & col.1322C; in Eng. pp.192-3 and p.195.
[16] R.Angold (B.24) p.488;  J.& B.Hamilton (B.8) pp.212-4.
[17] M.Loos: Dualist Heresy… (B.21) p.97.
[18] R.Angold (B.24) p.488.
[19] J.Gouillard: Constantin… (B.30) pp.315-326
[20] ibid. p.326.
[21] R.Angold (B.24) p.478.
[22] I.Hausheer’s dates for Symeon’s life, 949-1022, have been questioned.  P.Christou has argued for 956-1036; see H.Alfeyev ( B.30) p.28.
[23] H.Turner (B.30) pp.17-35; H.Alfeyev (B.30) pp.27-37.
[24] H.Alfeyev (B.30) pp.1-2.
[25] Symeon the New Theologian: Ethical Discourses no.1 chap.1, transl. Golitzin (B.30) p.24. There is a French transl. in J.Darrouzès: Traités… (B.30) vol.1, pp.181-3.
[26] Ibid: Discourse 1:chap.1; p.25; French transl. vol.1, p.183.
[27] ibid: Discourse 2:chap.3; p.97 (Fr. tr. vol.1, p.345).
[28] ibid: Discourse 2:chaps. 4 & 5; pp.98-103; Fr.tr. vol.1, pp.349-361.
[29] Ibid: Discourse 2:chap.6; pp.106ff.; Fr. tr. vol.1, pp.363ff.
[30] ibid: Discourse 1:chap.5; pp.38-39; Fr. tr. vol.1, p.213.
[31] Ibid: Discourse 1:chap.5; p.41; Fr. tr. vol.1, pp.219-221.
[32] ibid: Discourse 10; p.143; Fr. tr. vol.2, p.261.  The tenth discourse is wholly concerned with the “Day of the Lord”.
[33] Ibid: Discourse 10; pp.146-7; Fr. tr. vol.2, pp.265-7.
[34] Ibid: Discourse 10; p.146; Fr. tr. vol.2, p.269.
[35] Symeon the New Theologian: from Catechesis 20, translated in H.Turner (B.30) p.187.
[36] V.Lossky (B.30) p.9.
[37] ibid. p.196.
[38] From Ethical Discourses no.4, translated in Turner (B.30) p.188; Fr.tr. vol.2, p.27.
[39] Symeon the New Theologian: Ethical Discourses no.1, chap.12, transl. Golitzin (B.30) p.73; Fr. tr. vol.1, pp.293-5.
[40] 1 John 3:24.
[41] Symeon the New Theologian: The Chapters 1:65, transl. McGuckin (B.30) p.50.  (The French translation is in J. Darrouzès: Chapitres…(B.30) p.58.)
[42] ibid: 3:44, p.84. (Fr. tr. p.93.)
[43] Symeon the New Theologian: Ethical Discourses no.1, chap.10, transl. Golitzin (B.30) pp.55-56. (Fr. tr. op.cit. vol.1, p.253.)
[44] M.Loos: Dualist Heresy (B.21) p.97;  D.Obolensky (B.23) p.220.
[45] Symeon the New Theologian: The Chapters 1:35, transl. McGuckin (B.30) p.42, quoting John 3:5. (Fr. tr. op. cit. p.50.)
[46] Ibid: 1:36, p.42. (Fr. tr. p.50.)
[47] Ethical Discourses no.10, transl. Golitzin (B.30) pp.152-3; Fr. tr. op. cit. vol.2, pp.283-5.
[48] From Discourse no.5, translated in H.Turner (B.30) p.189. (Fr. tr. vol.2 p.103.)
[49] Symeon the New Theologian: Theological Discourses no.3, translated McGuckin (B.30) p.138.  (Fr. tr. vol.1, p.165.)
[50] The Chapters 2:17, transl. McGuckin (B.30) p.67.  (Fr. tr. op. cit. pp.75-77.)
[51] There are several points of close resemblance, not just in their aims, but in the details of their administration: see D. Meade: From turmoil… (B.31) pp.339-344; and R. Duvernay: Cîteaux, Vallombreuse… (B.31) pp.384-410.
[52] D. Meade: op.cit. p.328; L.Lekai: White Monks… (B.34) p.11.
[53] L.Lekai: op.cit. p.10.
[54] Studied at length in the piece about Cistercian mystics, in the section entitled POSSIBLE SOURCES.

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