The Influence of Real-life Encounters on the Treatment of Heterodox Groups in the Refutatio omnium haeresium

The topic is a further spin-off my doctoral thesis, though the perspective is genuinely novel: it was developed for the 8th International Lectio Conference “Polemics, Rivalry and Networking in Greco-Roman Antiquity” which took take place in Leuven, 12-14 December 2018.


Heresiological collections are typically a product of studies at the desk. The consultation of similar works and the compilation of (additional) sources is followed by an abridged summary of each group and by the intellectual challenge of their refutation. A real-life encounter with the subjects and teachings is neither desired, nor, in many cases, feasible: Geographical and/or the temporal distance would prevent such an endeavour anyway. These observations apply in grosso modo also to the Refutatio omnium haeresium, a compendium-like heresiology dated to the beginning of the 3rd century AD and traditionally attributed to Hippolytos (Romanus). The treatment of some 32 overwhelmingly “gnostic” teachings broadly relies on the work of Irenaeus and is in most cases hardly more than an intellectual challenge, even if the anonymous Author claims the practical use of his book as a guide to the market of religions.

In contrast, his approach to the most notorious and dangerous contemporary heretic par excellence, to Calixtus I., bishop of Rome (?217-?222) is fundamentally different. His exceptionally elaborated, vivid and toxic account leaves little doubt about a personal, real-life clash. But the Calixtus section represents only the well-notable tip of an iceberg. It is certain, that the Author – active in the clergy of the Roman Christian community since the episcopacy of Victor I. – was involved or was at least closely observing local controversies (and showdowns) between the mainstream church and various heterodox groups. Partly several decades after the actual incidences, the teachings of the Quartodecimans, the “Phrygians”, both Theodotians, Sabellius as well as Calixtus were incorporated into this compendium by using original material.

The proposed contribution seeks to explore the influence of real-life encounters and personal experiences between the Author of the Refutatio and his subjects on the gauge and treatment of the above named heterodox teachers and teachings. It will offer a case study to each group to identify peculiarities of rhetorical and argumentative strategies beside the stereotypic pattern of the successio haereticorum/philosophorum. It will conclude with a systematic analysis of the symptomatic elements to highlight the role of personal networks on polemic strategies and on intellectual controversies.

National Library of France
Folio from the only extant manuscript of the Refutatio omnium haeresium.