Background to controversy
Most of the early heresies were Trinitarian and Christological in
nature, but Collyridianism stood alone as a heresy that sought to
deify the Blessed Virgin Mary. Little is known about the movement's
theology. Not even the names of the group's leaders are mentioned by
writers of the time. This sect's excessive Marian devotion developed
into the idolatry of Mary worship. This aberration grew out of the
Church's rightful veneration of Mary as ever-virgin, Mother of God,
and powerful heavenly intercessor, but crossed the line of orthodoxy
when certain Christians began to worship Mary as divine. Details
about the Collyridians are scanty, but one of the few specifics we
know of them is that at their liturgical service bread was offered as
a sacrifice to Mary.
The heresy of the Collyridians was very simple: They worshiped Mary.
This was in direct conflict with the Catholic Church's condemnation
of idolatry, which had been condemned by God himself: "You shall have
no other gods before me. You shall not make for yourself a graven
image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that
is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth; you
shall not bow down to them or serve them; for I the Lord your God am
a jealous God" (Ex. 20:3-5; cf. Deut. 5:7 6:14; 1 Cor. 4:8-6,
10:19-20; Eph. 5:5). This proscription applies not just to statue
worship, but to the worship of anything besides God.
It is ironic that the most diligent opponent of the Collyridians was
Epiphanius (315- 403), the bishop of Salamis. He was widely renowned
for his learning and holy asceticism and was a close friend of
Jerome, but he was also a rude and querulous man who garnered many
enemies, some of whom were fellow bishops.
Though Epiphanius's efforts to quash the Collyridians were laudable
and his theological and scriptural reasoning against their idolatry
was sound, he himself was not free from error in the area of honoring
God's friends. The vehemence of his opposition to the Collyridians'
idolatry was rivaled by his fanatical opposition to icons.
In a description that is reminiscent of certain modern-day
Fundamentalist foes of Catholic Marian doctrines and of venerating
icons and images, patristics scholar Aloys Dirksen, C.P.P.S.,
describes Epiphanius as having a "fiery temperament and unreasonable
impetuosity . . . that made the calm objectivity necessary for
scholarly work impossible for him. His narrow-mindedness is apparent
in the part he played in the Origenist controversy and the violence
with which he attacked the veneration of images.
"He considered this idolatry, and in his testament he anathematized
anyone who would even gaze upon a picture of the Logos-God. His
temperament made him suspicious of heresy everywhere, and he made
capital of even the smallest inaccuracy of statement. It appeared
impossible for him to see any viewpoint but his own. Since he lacked
critical acumen and was a poor, even a tiresome writer, his works
would be of little value if it were not for his many quotations [of
others]. He thus saved much that would otherwise have been lost to
us" (Elementary Patrology [St. Louis: Herder, 1959], 117).
Epiphanius wrote against the Collyridians in his most important
apologetic work, Panarion (Medicine Box [374-377]), a tour-de-force
refutation of over eighty heresies known to him. He refuted the two
extreme and diametrically opposed Marian heresies of his day,
Collyridianism (which overly exalted Mary) and Antidicomarianitism,
an Arabian movement that debased Mary's status and virtues, to the
point of claiming "that holy Mary had intercourse with a man, that is
to say, Joseph, after the birth of Christ" (Panarion 78:1).
The Collyridians were primarily women who developed a syncretistic
combination of Catholicism and pagan goddess cult customs. After
describing the "awful and blasphemous ceremony," in which they adorn
a chair or a square throne and spread a linen cloth over it for their
ritual, Epiphanius writes, "Certain women there in Arabia have
introduced this absurd teaching from Thracia: how they offer up a
sacrifice of bread rolls in the name of the ever-Virgin Mary, and all
partake of this bread" ( 78:13). He emphasizes the
difference between Mary and God: "It is not right to honor the saints
beyond their due" (ibid. 78:23); "Now the body of Mary was indeed
holy, but it was not God; the Virgin was indeed a virgin and revered,
but she was not given to us for worship, but she herself worshiped
him who was born in the flesh from her.... Honor Mary, but let the
Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit be worshiped, but let no one
worship Mary, . . . even though Mary is most beautiful and holy and
venerable, yet she is not to be worshiped" (ibid. 79:1, 4).
With Epiphanius we can say that anyone who worships Mary or any other
creature is committing idolatry and must be rebuked. We should look
to Scripture, at the case of the angel who rebuked John for his
temptation to idolatry, to see how to admonish modern-day
Collyridians: "At this I fell at his feet to worship him. But he said
to me, 'Do not do it! I am a fellow servant with you and with your
brothers who hold to the testimony of Jesus. Worship God!'" (Rev.
19:10). No doubt, our Lady herself would say this to any who would
seek to worship her.
Collyridianism is seen today in various forms. Those "hyper-Marian"
groups and writers who overly exalt Mary and focus on her to the
exclusion (or near exclusion) of Christ are guilty of something
approaching idolatry. Modern feminism is the source of a recycled
Collyridianism that worships a "mother goddess" and seeks to
"re-image" God in female terms.
This article was taken from the October, 1994 issue of "This Rock,"
published by Catholic Answers, P.O. Box 17490, San Diego, CA 92177,
(619) 541-1131, $24.00 per year.