Mani: Know Your Heretics

A self-appointed “helper of Jesus”

Manichaeism is based on the teachings of Mani (216–c.277), who founded a Gnostic-like, highly dualistic religion. He rejected all of the Old Testament and much of the New Testament. Mani claimed his religion to be the unadulterated form of Christianity. He referred to himself as “Mani, an Apostle of Jesus Christ by the appointment of God the Father,” thinking himself to be the “helper” to whom Jesus alluded in John 14:16.

“Battle between light and dark”

The Manichean religion is a fusion of aspects of Zoroastrianism, Buddhism, and Gnostic versions of Christianity—a pantheistic hodgepodge.

Central to Manichaeism is the belief in a primordial feud between the powers of light and darkness. Mani taught that behind the universe lay two ultimate principles: God the Father reigns over the Kingdom of Light, which is spiritual, and a horrible prince rules over the Kingdom of Darkness, which is material. Both kingdoms are eternal and in perpetual conflict.

Too spiritual for the Resurrection

All material things, including the physical body, were viewed as evil and restrictive. This led the Manicheans to reject the biblical concept of the resurrection of the dead, the content of Christian hope.

In striving for release from their finite bodies through the obedience of simple moral laws, Manicheans were taught to hope for reincarnation as members of the elect who would eventually be delivered from the world cycle through the process of transmigration. Church historian J.N.D. Kelly describes this strange belief: 

    As he exists, man is tragically involved in the material order; he isfallen and lost. Actually, however, he is a particle of Light, belonging to, though exiled from, the transcendent world. He is of the sameessence as God, and human souls are fragments of the divine substance. His salvation lies in grasping this truth by an interiorillumination which may be spontaneous, but usually comes in response to initiation into the Manichean fellowship; and in the process of salvation, God is at once redeemer and redeemed.

Too spiritual for the Incarnation

The Manichean view of Christ is seriously different from the Bible’s. Due to the dualism of the religion, the body, being natural and material, is considered evil. For the Son of God to take on our nature would be to contaminate himself with evil. The Incarnation, a contradiction to this dualistic belief, was considered outlandish and implausible.

Perhaps the most famous Manichean was St. Augustine, who adhered to this religion for 10 years while he was at Carthage and then at Rome before he converted to Christianity. 

Augustine wrote against Manichaeism in his Confessions and Against Faustus the Manichaean. (Faustus was the chief theologian of Manichaeism).

Christ Above All

Manichaeism is clearly contrary to orthodox Christianity in that it insists there is no omnipotent God who is the creator of all things. Rather, the eternal struggle between good and evil places the force of good on equal footing with the force of evil. In contrast, orthodox Christianity asserts there is one God who existed prior to, and separate from, creation. God is not one with the world (as pantheism states), nor is he unable to defeat evil. On the contrary, Colossians asserts that Christ is above every earthly power and his victorious resurrection serves as the ultimate answer to the problem of evil. 

Contrary to Manichaeism, Christianity does not ascribe evil to creation, for the book of Genesis describes everything created by God as good and untainted by sin before the fall of Adam.

Manichaeism today

The Manichean religion finds continuity with much contemporary new age spiritualism. The idea that “God is in everything and everything is in God” pervades culture, and the concept of reincarnation is prevalent. Contrary to reincarnation, Christianity teaches that salvation does not lie in overcoming evil through moral behavior and upright living. Rather, it consists in acknowledging one’s inability to do so and clinging to the one who has—the God-man, Jesus Christ.