PRISCILLIAN, PRISCILLIANISTS: The Ninety Canons. Bishop of Abila and Spanish sectary, and his followers; beheaded at Treves about 385. Apparently educated under Gnostic influences by a certain. Manichean Marcus of Memphis, Priscillian held to the doctrine that charismata continued in the Church and regarded the Apocrypha (q.v.) as inspired. He was a rigid ascetic, though he did not forsake his wife even when he became bishop. The first literary production of Priscillian seems to have been his Nonaginta canones, which purport to refute heretics on the basis of the writings of Paul, and it is marked by a primitive and even Marcionitic spirit. Bishops and clergy on the whole are to be peaceable; apostles, prophets, and masters (doctors) are the divinely appointed orders of the Church, preeminence being due the doctors, among whom Priscillian reckoned himself. The "spiritual" comprehend and judge all things, being "children of wisdom and light"; and the distinction between flesh and spirit, darkness and light, Moses and Christ, and the "prince of this world" and Christ, are emphasized, so that two sorts of spirits and two wisdoms are contrasted. At the same time this dualism is blended with monism; but though Christ is both God and man, as man he is "not made of divinity, but of the seed of David and of woman," a primitive Christology, drawing upon him the charge of Photinianism (see PHOTINUS). Justification is by faith, and faith by the grace of God. Rigid asceticism, including abstinence from wine and meat, is recommended, and separation from unbelievers is urged. The Old Testament is ranked far below the New.
Conflicts. Priscillian was not content to remain a lay teacher and leader of conventicles. Like other ascetics, he wished to become priest and bishop to give his views more influence. So formidable became the movement that in 380 Bishop Hydatius of Emerita convened a synod at Saragossa in which he charged the ascetic faction with reading Apocryphal writings and with Novatianism, Photinianism, Manicheanism (see NOVATIAN; and MANICHEANS), and all sorts of heresy. Priscillian, still a layman, did not appear at the synod, though he wrote in reply his third tractate justifying the reading of the Apocrypha, without denying that their contents were partly spurious. The resolutions of the synod, which consisted of two Gallic and ten Spanish bishops, condemned certain practises of the conventicles; such as receiving the Eucharist in the church but eating it at home or in the conventicle; fasting for three weeks before Epiphany, as the day of Christ's birth and baptism (the twenty-fifth day of December being not yet accepted in Spain), and substituting meditation in the mountains for attending church during this period, fasting on the Sundays of the period of Quadragesima and on Sundays as a whole; their imitation of Christ in the desert during the forty days of Lent; and their preference of conventicles, in which women spoke and taught, to churches; and Priscillian, though forbidden to call himself doctor, was not expressly condemned. Hydatius, however, claimed that Priscillian and his adherents had been anathematized, whereupon bishops Hyginus of Cordova and Symposius of Astorga, sympathizers with Priscillian, advised that the matter be brought before a synod. The ascetic faction followed this suggestion the more readily since Priscillian was then consecrated bishop of Abila by Instantius and Salvianus. Hydatius, foreseeing defeat, obtained from Gratian a rescript against pseudo-bishops and Manicheans, whereupon Priscillian, Instantius, and Salvianus went to Damasus at Rome, and, laying before him a memorial (the second tractate), asked to be rehabilitated either by a synod or by the emperor. While both Damasus and Ambrose of Milan received the three Spanish bishops with suspicion, they obtained from Gratian a rescript relieving them of the charge of being pseudo-bishops and Manicheans, thus assuring Priscillian of his position.
Views. Theologically (Tractates, iv.-xi.) Priscillian's God is the "God Christ"; he is not Patripassian but Christopassian. God is "invisible in the Father, visible in the Son," and the Holy Ghost is one in the work of the two. In Christ is all; without him, nothing. This God-Christ was to him the order of the preexistent elements of the world, and in that sense the creator, as well as the repulsor of the dark powers of chaos. Earthborn powers and other potencies are maintained, but the vivification of chaos is the work of the Spirit of God. Throughout the system a certain dualism can not fail to be recognized. Man was made by God in the divine image; the Creator gave life to the human "body of an earthly dwelling"; man belongs, hence, to the earth; the natural man is subject to time; and the "divine race of men" is weakened by its earthly incorporation, whence the fall and paganism. The Mosaic law was the preparation for redemption through the prohibition of idolatry, while sacrifice was designed to kill the vices of man. Salvation was brought by Christ, and he suffered all to which man is subject. Through the birth and death of Christ the evils of human birth were purified, and the curses of earthly domination were crucified, so that he overcame the earthly nature of man. In accordance with the trichotomy of Priscillian a third testament of the Spirit should follow, but in his extant writings there are no details on this subject. In asceticism Priscillian distinguished three degrees, though he did not deny hope of pardon to those who were unable to attain full perfection. The perfect in body, mind, and spirit were celibate, or, if married, continent. Throughout his writings Priscillian appears as an archaizing Western Christian with ideals of rigid asceticism, and Gnostic in tendency. Though clearly unaware that he was heretical, his veiled dualism could scarcely be regarded as orthodox, and he must have written at least one work which was unquestionably Gnostic. In this he taught that the human soul, born of God, had proceeded from a certain "repository." Descending through a number of circles, it had been seized by malignant powers and imprisoned in divers bodies. This imprisonment had been confirmed by a divine autograph, which Christ had annulled by his death. The first circle appears to have been controlled by the patriarchs, who, as beneficent powers, controlled the "members of the soul," while the "members of the body" were subject to the zodiac. It would also seem that the Priscillianists assumed seven heavens (the "circles") with corresponding archons, the earth itself being given to a "malignant prince." According to Orosius, Priscillian derived these doctrines from a "memoir of the apostles," and this work must have spoken of the "prince of dampness" and the "prince of fire" as powers of nature. When God shows "the virgin of light" to the "prince of dampness," lightning and rain follow. His attribution of profound influence of the stars on man apparently substantiates the assertion that for many years Priscillian studied magic and astrology, and later as possessing the charismata he doubtless endeavored to heal the sick.
The Priscillianists. With the victorious return of Priscillian and Instantius, the controversy with the anti-ascetics seemed to be at an end. But their route through Gaul had brought the ascetics of that country into contact with those of Spain, so that they now felt themselves to be a power. The opposing bishops renewed their activity, the Spaniards being led by Ithacius Clarus, bishop of Sossuba (Ossonoba?) from before 379 to c. 388. Though he did not directly attack Priscillian, the latter appealed for protection to the proconsul Volventius, and Ithacius sought refuge in Gaul with the prefect Gregorius. Meanwhile Gratian had died, and the new emperor, willing to hear Ithacius, convened a synod at Bordeaux, in 385, where all parties concerned were to be heard. Here Priscillian defended himself in his first tractate, maintaining that the Apocrypha should be read, but declaring himself innocent of Patripassianism, Manicheanism, Ophitism, and other heresies, condemning Basilides, Arius (qq.v.), the Borborites (see GNOSTICISM, § 2), and Montanists (see MONTANISM), and denying that he worshiped stars and demons, or taught that man had been created by the devil. He likewise denied that he practised magic. The result of the synod had been determined from the first. Instantius was deposed, and Priscillian, to escape a worse state, appealed to the emperor. The decision took place at Treves. Ithacius, seconded by Hydatius, accused Priscillian of magic and Manicheanism, the penalty for either being death by Roman law. Martin of Tours, himself denounced by Ithacius as a heretic, interceded for Priscillian at court, urging that deposition was a sufficient penalty. Maximus solemnly promised to spare the lives of the accused; but the bishops Magnus and Rufus urged the emperor to break his word, and he entrusted the investigation to the prefect Evodius, who employed torture. Tertullus, Potamius, and Johannes, in order to escape a penalty, now confessed themselves and their friends as guilty. Evodius held Priscillian charged with sorcery and enforced a confession that the conventicles were basely immoral. Maximus could now take advantage of the victims to satisfy his avarice. Ithacius, hitherto the accuser, withdrew to avoid scandal among the bishops, and his place was taken, at the emperor's command, by a certain Patricius. Priscillian and four others were beheaded, the same fate soon overtaking Asarbus and the deacon Aurelius. Instantius and Tiberianus (whose property was confiscated) were banished, and Tertullus, Potamius, and Johannes were sentenced to brief exile.
The execution of a bishop for sorcery and immorality (the latter charge entirely baseless) attracted attention far and wide, but with the fall of Maximus the tide changed. Hydatius resigned his see, while Ithacius was deposed and probably exiled from Spain. Priscillian, on the other hand, was regarded by his friends as a martyr. His sect spread widely, especially in Galicia (Spain), though no longer represented in the episcopate. So flourishing were they that appeal was made to Leo I. (440-461), who wrote an epoch-making letter (given in Eng. transl. in NPNF, 2 ser., xii. 20-26); a synod of Toledo (447) under the influence of the pope condemned the sect; and in 563 the Synod of Braga was obliged to deal with it, but thenceforth it vanished, being absorbed by the Cathari (see NEW MANICHEANS, II.). The ascetic and Gnostic sect of the Priscillianists must be regarded primarily as a phenomenon of Occidental monasticism and early Christian enthusiasm, resulting in Gnosticism. The basis of the sect was the "Abstinentes" of Philaster (Hr., lxxxiv.), groups of ascetics in Gaul and Spain under suspicion as to their theology, and apparently Encratites (q.v.) transplanted to the west. They had adopted Gnostic and Manichean elements, had rejected many foods as coming from the devil, and despised marriage. They, like the Priscillianists, were essentially the children of such apocryphal writings as the Acts of Thomas, Andrew, and John, and perhaps the Books of Ezra and an Epistle to the Laodiceans. Mingled with the Gnostic concepts of the Priscillianists, moreover, were pagan elements; and the conscious possession of non-Catholic secret doctrines, at once the advantage and the peril of the sect, is shown by the fact that the Priscillianist Dictinius, later Catholic bishop of Astorga, in his Libra asserted that Priscillianists were justified in falsehood if need be, deeming that they might make themselves pass for Catholic Christians providing they recognised in their hearts the truths opposed to the Church, veracity being required only toward fellow sectaries and not toward the Catholic church.