What are the most striking disagreements (if any) between the early Church Fathers of the second century?

EDIT: The unanimity of the early Church Fathers is something that is often presented as an indisputable fact. However, while they were all in agreement about some major points of faith, there might have been some disagreements on some minor things. This question is about that.

EDIT: As for the definition of "Church Father", I just follow Wikipedia's list.

  • 1
    I think it would help if you defined 'striking'.
    – Nigel J
    Sep 23, 2018 at 10:34
  • @NigelJ - I mean the most evident one or the most known one.
    – brilliant
    Sep 23, 2018 at 14:26
  • 2
    You have to keep in mind that theologians were named "church fathers" long time after their dead. And of course no one would have given this title to a theologian whose ideas were contrary to the religious teaching at the time when this title was awarded. Surely there were "striking disagreements" in the 3rd century (take Arianism as an example). However centuries later the title "church father" was only given to the leading theologians having a certain opinion. Therefore you won't find "church fathers" having the other opinion. Sep 23, 2018 at 19:03
  • Yes @MartinRosenau. The most striking disagreements at the time of the early Church were disagreements of the Church Fathers with other parties outside the Church.
    – Nigel J
    Sep 23, 2018 at 20:40
  • @MartinRosenau - That's, in fact, the very reason why I am asking this question. The unanimity of the early Church Fathers is something that is often presented as an indisputable fact. However, while they were all in agreement about some major points of faith, there might have been some disagreements on some minor things. That's what I am curious to know.
    – brilliant
    Sep 23, 2018 at 21:59

2 Answers 2


One of the most striking disagreements in the early church and even today was on the question of the virginity of Mary at Christ's birth and thereafter.

In the early church and even still today, we all agree that a virgin conceived and carried to term Christ. The disagreement was on what happened next at His birth. This disagreement subsequently also factored into the question of the relationship of the brothers of Jesus; were they also born from Mary or from elsewhere? We won't go into that issue, but will focus on the birth of Christ. There are two diametrically opposed views.

Which Gate and How?

To understand the conflict in the very early church, we will start with John of Damacus who wrote something remarkable around 725.

But just as He who was conceived kept her who conceived still virgin, in like manner also He who was born preserved her virginity intact, only passing through her and keeping her closed. The conception, indeed, was through the sense of hearing, but the birth through the usual path by which children come, although some tell tales of His birth through the side of the Mother of God. For it was not impossible for Him to have come by this gate, without injuring her seal in anyway. -source-

John tells us of the belief in a "normal" birth through the "south gate". Apparently he believes that, but has no way to explain it. He also references the belief Christ was born out the "east gate"; that is, from Mary's side. He even gives credence to this belief as "not impossible". [added editions are in brackets] [OTOH, John may be referencing again the "south gate"; that it wasn't impossible to remain intact (somehow).] So to where does this idea arise [of a "normal" birth but with gate(s) regardless of south or east remaining intact]?

The idea sources to the infancy gospel of James wherein it is said that Mary remained a virgin even in the act of giving birth. This means one of two things. Neither are good. One she retained all of the afterbirth (placenta, blood, umbilical cord, etc). Two she was never really pregnant with Christ. This group was lead by Origen, Valentinus, and others.

As mentioned, this idea stays alive all the way to John of Damascus still commenting on the idea that Christ was born from Mary's side (east gate). Moreover we find the idea in the Trullo Council 692 in Constantinople defining no afterbirth at Christ's birth in Canon LXXIX.

As the Catholic Church has always taught the Virgin-birth as well as the Virgin-conception of our Blessed Lord, and has affirmed that Mary was ever-virgin, even after she had brought forth the incarnate Son, so it follows necessarily that there could be no childbed nor puerperal flux. -source-

No childbed or birth flux, which means no afterbirth, umbilical cord, blood, placenta or all the normal things from a normal human birth. That was what was denied according to this view.

Here again is the source of this idea.

And the midwife went forth out of the cave, and Salome met her. And she said to her: Salome, Salome, I have a strange sight to relate to thee: a virgin has brought forth -- a thing which her nature admits not of.

Why? Her nature of being pregnant would be to bring forth a newborn, but also the rest of what it means to be pregnant.

Valentinus put it this way.

“he has brought his body down from above and passed through the Virgin Mary like water through a pipe. He has taken nothing from the virgin womb…” Panarion of Epiphanius H7

Marcion, quoted from Tertullian, put it this way, denying the afterbirth, the normal birth in the normal human way.

Of course you [Marcion] are horrified also at the infant, which is shed into life with the embarrassments which accompany it from the womb;6991 you likewise, of course, loathe it even after it is washed, when it is dressed out in its swaddling-clothes, graced with repeated anointing, smiled on with nurse’s fawns. This reverend course of nature, you, O Marcion, (are pleased to) spit upon; and yet, in what way were you born? You detest a human being at his birth; then after what fashion do you love anybody? Yourself, of course, you had no love of, when you departed from the Church and the faith of Christ. -source-

Ouch. Tertullian draws a line in the sand here between believing as the Church does in a normal human birth versus the "not normal". Unfortunately again, this idea nonetheless remained within and found its way some 550 years later in the aforementioned Council Canon.

Normal Birth in the Normal Way

On the other hand you have those in the church who agreed that Christ was born normally in the normal way. This meant exactly what it means (virginity, defined as intactness, was ended). This group was lead by Tertullian, Clement of Alexandria, Cyril of Jerusalem, and others.

I've already shown Tertullian commenting on the false idea of ever-virgin due to the idea of Mary retaining the after-birth or not even having any. Here is Clement of Alexandria who wrote about 200 also coming against that idea. He also mentions the source (Infancy Gospel of James).

"But, as appears, many even down to our own time regard Mary, on account of the birth of her child, as having been in the puerperal state, although she was not. For some say that, after she brought forth, she was found, when examined, to be a virgin." http://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/anf02.vi.iv.vii.xvi.html

That is to say they taught that Mary because of Jesus' birth remained in the childbirth state, remained a virgin after she brought forth, but Clement disagrees with them.

The context of Clement's quote is found in the first sentence and provides more clarity.

But those who are ready to toil in the most excellent pursuits, will not desist from the search after truth, till they get the demonstration from the Scriptures themselves. -ibid-

Again his conclusion is not that Mary remained in the birth state as a perpetual virgin, but rather that scripture remained virginal.

Now [in contrast to the heretics] such to us are the Scriptures of the Lord, which gave birth to the truth and continue virgin, in the concealment of the mysteries of the truth. -ibid-

Cyril of Jerusalem wrote about 350 and lays out the same argument that the only way Christ took flesh was to be born normally of the virgin. Note his insistence against the heretics on when that ended because Christ was both Son of God and Son of Man.

  1. Since God then beareth witness, and the Holy Ghost joins in the witness, and Christ says, Why do ye seek to kill me, a man who has told you the truth let the heretics be silenced who speak against His humanity, for they speak against Him, who saith, Handle me, and see; for a spirit hath not flesh and bones, as ye see me have. Adored be the Lord the Virgin-born, and let Virgins acknowledge the crown of their own state: let the order also of Solitaries acknowledge the glory of chastity for we men are not deprived of the dignity of chastity. In the Virgin’s womb the Saviour’s period of nine months was passed: but the Lord was for thirty and three years a man: so that if a virgin glories because of the nine months, much more we because of the many years. -source-

Let me men glory because of Christ's virginity. Let the women glory for the Virgin Mary's 9 months. 9 months, not her whole life because to do so was to support the heretical idea that Christ took nothing from the Virgin and merely passed through her.


It may seem strange to our ears to hear this conflict in the words of those from some 2,000 years ago as they argued about the nature of Christ. After all, most Christians would agree He is Son of God and Son of Man; they just aren't sure how. Still that was the context of the argument about the nature of His birth and thus His nature. Did He just pass through Mary or was He born normally? Was there just an appearing or was the birth human complete with umbilical cord, blood, and placenta?

On the one side were those like Valentinus, Marcion, and Origen who believed and taught that Jesus took nothing from Mary and merely passed through her. They taught there was no normal birth, but rather that Christ just apppeared at her side. She remained in the childbirth state as a virgin.

On the other side were men like Tertullian, Clement of Alexandria, and Cyril of Alexandria who taught that Christ was born normally. Let the virgins glory in Mary's nine months.

  • So, will you get a chance to gather some quotes on one of these days?
    – brilliant
    Oct 14, 2018 at 8:44
  • I disagree (but haven't thoroughly checked the context) about the "not impossible" -- I read it as not impossible for Him to have come by this [the south] gate. He seems to me to be saying that Jesus could have come through without breaking, and that the more fanciful [east gate] explanation is therefore not necessary. His belief is clearly that Jesus passed through the birth canal, regardless of whether he thought it "not impossible" that Jesus exited another way.
    – Bit Chaser
    Oct 14, 2018 at 19:14
  • I should have said, We seem to agree that his belief is ... to make it more clear.
    – Bit Chaser
    Oct 14, 2018 at 19:23
  • I understand your comment. I'll change my comment to reflect. I believe John of D was using the historic metaphor from Ezekiel that some used about the east gate applying to Christ's birth and that gate remaining shut (intact).
    – SLM
    Oct 14, 2018 at 21:59

First of all:

According to the German Wikipedia both the Catholic Church, the Orthodox Church as well as the Protestant Church use the term "Church Father" and they have a different idea about who is a "Church Father" and who is not. (Example: Mark of Ephesus)

Because you did not write if you use the Catholic, the Orthodox or the Protestant definition of the term, I referred to the Catholic one.

(if any)

It depends on what you call "striking disagreement" and what you call "minor disagreement";

but it is impossible that the theologians accepted as Church Fathers by the Catholic Church show what most people would call a "striking disagreement".


Again according to the German Wikipedia the Catholic Church used four different criteria to decide whether to call some theologian a "Church Father" or not.

One of these four criteria is "orthodoxa doctrina" which (still according to the German Wikipedia) means that a theologian showing major deviations to the Catholic teaching (at the time when the title was awarded) could not be called "Church Father".

This however means that a theologian who showed "striking disagreements" (as you call it) to the other theologians accepted by the Catholic Church (such as the ones that have been titled "Church Father") did not meet this criterion and therefore was not awarded the title "Church Father".

The unanimity of the early Church Fathers is often presented as an indisputable fact.

Of course it must be a fact because the title "Church Father" simply was not awarded to theologians who had major disagreements to the Church Fathers because in this case the criterion "orthodoxa doctrina" was not met!

However between the lines I read your question the way that you understand the argument the following way (excuse me if my interpretation is wrong):

The fact that all the Church Fathers have the same opinion in a certain question means that there was no disagreement about that question in the early Church.

This argument is of course wrong:

Of course there were a lot of "striking disagreements" in the early Church.

And maybe there were even a few questions where the position of the Church Fathers only represented the minority of the Christians of their time.

In such a case the theologians representing the majority of the Christians could not be awarded the title "Church Father" (in later times) because the criterion "orthodoxa doctrina" was not met.

  • Thank you. I agree with most of you've written. I would just want to find out more about some possible disagreements even among those who were later picked as those having unanimity. BTW, I think your reply to @Nigel must be written in the comment, not in the answer.
    – brilliant
    Sep 25, 2018 at 12:58
  • Thanks, I think this is a real improvement over the original answer since it explains why there couldn't be a disagreement between those deemed Church Fathers (rightly or wrongly cough Origen) rather than just saying Church Fathers aren't a thing. If you hover over the tag, you can see what the "Christianity StackExchange definition" of Church Fathers is, I was a little surprised to see it extend to the 7th century.
    – Peter Turner
    Oct 3, 2018 at 13:50
  • @PeterTurner, How about the three birth scenarios in the first answer? Is one of them the only acceptable one in Catholicism today, or is this a point on which two church fathers could disagree? Is this worthy of a new question?
    – Bit Chaser
    Oct 14, 2018 at 19:27

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