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Christological Heresies

31/08/2021

Christological Heresies

In our catechism class when we looked at Lord’s Day 14, Q35, we learned about the two natures in Christ, how he was, while on this earth, fully God and fully man and we saw something of the importance of maintaining and confessing this doctrine without error.  In Q36, we will seek to underline and this, and to  see how the two natures of Christ really matters to Christian believers, as individuals.  In this short bonus episode of the podcast, I just want to briefly outline some historical Christological errors, – how people have tried to explain the person of Christ, and gone astray – so that we can be aware of the dangers, many of which are still around in the modern church, and hopefully we can identify these errors and avoid them.  In Romans 16:17, Paul the apostle wrote, Now I beseech you, brethren, mark them which cause divisions and offences contrary to the doctrine which ye have learned; and avoid them.

So, to be fair, this podcast won’t be for everyone!  But if you are interested in church history or systematic theology, stay with me and take a very brief look at some ancient and modern Christological fallacies, some of the people who promoted them, and some of the modern day aberrations of doctrine that have been spawned by them …

23 My strength he weakened in the way,
My days of life he shortened.
24 My God, O take me not away
In mid-time of my days, I said:

1 Early Church Errors.

Errors surrounding the person and nature of Christ began to surface in the very earliest days of the church, and as we shall see, and some of the New Testament literature may have been aimed at these false teachers.  There are two errors that were common in first century Christianity.

  1. Ebionites.  The Ebionites were a first century Jewish / Christian sect, who believed that Jesus was a man like any of us, the natural son of Mary and Joseph, but who was especially anointed with the Holy Spirit, anointed to be the last great prophet, and because of his righteousness and obedience to the law, was adopted into the Godhead – so rejecting the essential doctrine of his eternal sonship, – his preincarnate existence as the second person of the Godhead, the Logos.  So, the Ebionites had no saviour, no theology of vicarious atonement, and their form of ‘Christianity’ was little more than a religion of futile good works, striving to keep the law, yet without the animal sacrifices that characterised the Jewish religion of that day.
  2. Docetics.  The Docetics were, to some extent, at the opposite end of heretical scale from the Ebionites.  Where the Ebionites stressed only the humanity of Christ, the Docetics stressed his divinity, believing that Jesus truly was God, come into this world, but that God, being a spirit could not take upon himself a human body.  Remember that there was a prevalent belief in those days, that spirit and matter were direct opposites, – a dualism, which thought of matter as being evil, and spirit being good.  It was a Greek concept, but commonplace nevertheless.  So how could a spirit become a human being?  Why would an exalted spirit even want to be a human being?  So, they put forward an idea that what the disciples were seeing when they looked at Jesus, was not a form of matter, not a natural body like us, but a phenomenon, – a ‘body’ composed of some form of starry or astral substance, that was outside our imagination. The incarnate Jesus was a phantasm or of ‘real but celestial substance.’ The outcome of that, was that when he suffered for us on the cross, those sufferings were not real – they were only apparent.  So, the docetics were in fact, ‘proto-gnostics.’  We looked at Gnosticism in an earlier podcast, and we saw how this common Greek belief invaded early Christianity, turning some people away from the true faith.  Check the episode notes for this podcast for links to the podcast on Gnosticism and the study guide on the blog.  To summarise, the docetics believed in the pre-existence and divinity of Christ but denied his humanity.  It may well be heretics like the docetics that John the apostle was writing about in 1 John 4:1-3.  Let’s read those verses…. Beloved, believe not every spirit, but try the spirits whether they are of God: because many false prophets are gone out into the world. 2 Hereby know ye the Spirit of God: Every spirit that confesseth that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh is of God: 3 And every spirit that confesseth not that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh is not of God: and this is that spirit of antichrist, whereof ye have heard that it should come; and even now already is it in the world.

On a positive note, that fact that the person of Christ was being discussed and debated, and his true nature defended by the church within a very short time of his death, demonstrates to us that in the very earliest days of Christianity, people knew that Christ’s conception and birth were important, that his nature and personhood was complex, and that some people were struggling to understand it, and failed to see its doctrinal significance.  That his true nature was so vigorously defended by the orthodox apologists, – the apostles and writers, – shows that the early church knew and confessed and defended the biblical account of Christ’s virgin birth.

Thy years throughout all ages last.
25 Of old thou hast established
The earth’s foundation firm and fast:
Thy mighty hands the heav’ns have made.

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2 Monarchianism.

Monarchianism was at its simplest, a stress upon the monotheistic nature of God.  Christians are monotheists, as are the Jews.  We believe in one God.  But as we saw in an earlier podcast, God is Triune, a Trinity, three persons in one God, the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, One God.  But in the second and third centuries AD, monarchianists denied the doctrine of an independent, personal subsistence of the Logos and declared the sole deity of God the Father, the direct opposite of orthodox trinitarianism.  

Monarchiansm fell broadly into two categories…  

  • Dynamic Monarchianism.  Believing that only the Father is God, – many of these heretics were adoptionists, – a little like the Ebionites, but without the Jewish aspects of that sect. Jesus for these people was a good man, a very good man, who was adopted as God’s son.  Many of them would have believed that this adoption took place at his baptism at the River Jordan, when the voice was heard from heaven, declaring him to be God’s beloved son, and he was empowered to do godlike things, with godlike wisdom and power.  You can see the problem here.  WE are adopted sons of God, but Jesus was God’s ONLY BEGOTTEN SON, and as we have seen before the word begotten in the sense of God, and the relationships within the Godhead, does not imply a time when he was ‘born’ but referred to the familial likeness, the son eternally begotten of the father.  One of the most colourful of the Dynamic Monarchianists was Paul of Samosata. Paul was elected as bishop of Antioch in AD260, until he was condemned in 269 by a council of church leaders meeting at Antioch, for his monarchist views.  Even after he was condemned by his fellow bishops, he continued to dwell in the bishop’s residence at Antioch, thanks to the patronage of the Queen of Syria, Zenobia, a situation which continued until 272, when the Romans under Emperor Aurelian removed Zenobia. It was the very first time that the secular authority intervened, at the request of church authorities, to settle a church dispute.  The emperor had declared, that the legal right to the church building should be assigned “to those to whom the bishops of Italy and Rome should communicate in writing.” Rome is given some acknowledged authority over other churches.

Paul of Samosata had an extravagant lifestyle.  Since he did not believe that Jesus is God, he saw no reason for hymns of praise to be raised to him.  Instead, he demanded that the church’s praise be directed to himself, and when he would enter the pulpit it would be to applause from his supporters, the so-called worshippers in the church.  He amassed wealth, and not from honest sources, but lived off the funds he creamed off the church.  He had a vast sexual appetite too, and it was reported that he retained two young and beautiful women to satisfy his carnal desires.

I’m only bring this to your attention, because in some respects Paul of Samosata’s lifestyle mirrors the lifestyle of some of the modern celebrity pastors who discredit evangelicalism, – men and women who live extravagant lives, drawing vast incomes from what they claim is the Lord’s Work, who love the adulation and applause, sometimes literally, of the people who listen to their health and wealth prosperity gospel messages, and who frequently seem to fall victim to sexual temptations, bring their own testimony and the witness of the visible church into great disrepute.  

There is a second type of Monarchianism, and it too has its echoes in modern christendom.  We call it…

  • Modal Monarchianism.

In the third century AD, Sabellius of Rome put forward an idea that the Father Son and Holy Spirit were simply manifestations of God, at different times.  So, in the Old Testament, God was acting in the mode of the Father.  While Jesus as on earth, he was acting in the mode of the Son, and in the church period, God is manifesting himself in the mode of the Holy Spirit.  So the Godhead is not three persons in One God, but one God, manifested to humanity in three persons, at different times and for different purposes.  

Another enthusiast for this heresy was a man called Praxeas.  No-one really knows for sure who Praxeas was, but his error was such that the early church apologist Tertullian of Carthage wrote a defence of orthodox trinitarian Christianity called “Against Praxeas.” Praxeas thought that the Father and the Son were so much the same that we could say that God the Father suffered on the cross – an error known as ‘patripassionism.’ In response, Tertullian’s apology contains the memorable line, “Praxeas has done two bits of mischief at Rome, – he has crucified the Father and put to flight the Paraclete.  

Again, there is modern echo of this awful heresy.  It is often known as ‘Oneness Pentecostalism.’  It is simply a regurgitation of this ancient heresy.  If you look at a website with a statement of belief that says something like, “The Trinity – We believe that God is ONE, and that he has manifested himself in the Bible as Father, Son and Holy Spirit.”  That’s a fair indication that the church is modalist, that they do not actually believe in the trinity, and that marks them out as dangerously erroneous.  One popular modalist is Bishop TD Jakes, an American televangelist who makes no secret of his modalistic views.  His statement of faith on his website reads: God There is one God, Creator of all things, infinitely perfect, and eternally existing in three manifestations: Father, Son and Holy Spirit.  That’s pretty blatant!  There are more subtle hints too.  A church may state something like, “We believe in the existence of the One Eternal, Self Existing, Almighty God who is revealed to us in the Scriptures as The Father, The Son and The Holy Spirit.”  That imprecise statement – probably deliberately imprecise – falls well short of orthodox trinitarianism.  Another good way to discover if a church has modalist tendencies, is to attend a baptism service!  These church will be baptistic, so just listen to what the pastor says when they immerse a candidate for baptism.  If the minister says “In the name of Jesus” instead of “In the name of the father, the Son and the Holy Ghost” – there’s every possibility that they are denying the trinity, and the proper personhood of Christ.

A word of caution here – there are lots of people who attend these churches, who are genuine Christian believers, and who are simply trusting in Christ for their salvation.  Many of these churches actually have a strong evangelistic emphasis, which belies their doctrinal abnormality.  To be fair to the people in the pews, most of them will be totally unaware of their leaders’ strange and divergent views on Christology.

26 They perish shall, as garments do,
But thou shalt evermore endure;
As vestures, thou shalt change them so;
And they shall all be changed sure:

Let’s move on…

3. Arianism.

We have already looked at Arius of Alexandria, Arianism, and the Council of Nicaea in 325AD in a previous catechism class, where we learned about the eternal sonship of Christ.  Arius too attacked the person of Christ.  He denied the eternal Sonship of the Logos, with his oft repeated catch phrase, “There was – when He was not.”  It was this error, and it’s rapid spread throughout the Roman Empire, that made the Emperor Constantine very worried about the possibility of a split in the church, – an organisation that Constantine viewed as a possible way to unite the diverse people of his empire.  To clear up the matter he instigated the Council of Nicaea, where the Trinitarian issue was settled in the visible church.  Arianism did not end at Nicea.  At the time of the Protestant reformation, in the 16th century, Arian monarchianism resurfaced as Unitarianism.  One of the first to propose a Unitarian theology was Servetus, a Spanish physician, – he was no fool.  He discovered and correctly described the circulation of the blood.  Servetus was a monarchianist, who denied the creeds of the early church.  On the incarnation, he believed that the Son was the union of the divine Logos with the man Jesus, miraculously born from the Virgin Mary through the intervention of God’s spirit. He published these ideas in his book The Restoration of Christianity, and that book was what provoked his condemnation at Geneva, and his eventual execution by burning, a punishment which scars the record of the Genevan Reformation.  In Poland Socinus spread unitarianism, and the modern unitarian churches still by and large look back to these two as their ‘reformers.’  

Modern unitarians placard their ‘tolerance’ and their mantra of ‘faith guided by human reason.’  Without a saviour, they strive to please God by their actions, are basically decent people, living to high standards, but their reliance on flawed sinful human logic, leads them well astray from biblical faithfulness.  Unitarian churches and denominations can include people with non-biblical sexual lifestyles, they support ‘gay pride’ events, after all even atheists can be unitarians!  It’s next to impossible to obtain a statement of belief from unitarian churches, most them literally believe nothing!  One church states, “We do not define for others what the word “god” means. For many it signifies what they believe to be of supreme worth.”   

You can see where lack of doctrinal clarity leads.  Once you cast doubt on an essential doctrine like the true nature and person of Christ, essential because of its importance for our salvation, then you will simply follow whatever cultural and social norms demanded of you by the pressure groups of modern society.   When Paul explains the nature and purpose of the Christian ministry in Ephesians, he points out that pastors and teachers are to build up the faith of the saints, so that they will NOT be susceptible to the moral, cultural and religious pressures of our postmodern societies.  Ephesians 4:11 And he gave some, apostles; and some, prophets; and some, evangelists; and some, pastors and teachers; 12 For the perfecting of the saints, for the work of the ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ: 13 Till we all come in the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, unto a perfect man, unto the measure of the stature of the fulness of Christ: 14 That we henceforth be no more children, tossed to and fro, and carried about with every wind of doctrine, by the sleight of men, and cunning craftiness, whereby they lie in wait to deceive;  God did NOT ordain ministers in the church to allow people to drift aimlessly, ‘defining for themselves what ‘god’ means to them!  How utterly futile, unbiblical and ridiculous.

There are other Christological errors that attacked doctrinal purity in the church, over succeeding years.  I don’t have time in this podcast to go into these in detail, just to briefly note them in passing.

  • Apollinarius was a bishop in Syria in the fourth century. He was a staunch opponent of Arianism but his keenness to  defend the deity of Jesus and the unity of his person led him to deny the existence of a real (or ‘rational’) human soul in Christ, but rather that his soul was replaced by the Logos. This error was known as Apollinarism and was condemned by the First Council of Constantinople in 381
  • Nestorius was a monk in the early fifth century.  The church at this time was referring to Mary as ‘The Mother of God’ – a title that Nestorius rejected because it seemed to deny Christ’s humanity.  He found it difficult to believe that God could be born in human flesh, or that he could suffer and die?  To resolve his difficulties he put forward the notion that Jesus was two distinct persons, both the human person and divine person, each operating independently. So at one time, the divine persona would be evident, and at other times the human.  The Greek term was ‘Prosopon’ – it literally means a ‘face.’ (πρόσωπον (prosōpon)). At one point it would be the divine person seen working, and at another point it was the human.  The Council of Ephesus in AD431 denounced Nestorianism as heretical, reaffirming the one person of Christ.
  • Eutyches of Constantinople (c. 380 – c. 456).  He believed and taught that Jesus was totally different to the rest of humanity. He stressed the unity of Christ’s nature to such an extent that Christ’s divinity consumed his humanity.  His illustration was that if you dropped a tiny amount to vinegar into the ocean, it would totally be consumed.  In the same manner, Christ’s divine nature simply swallowed up his human nature.  More precisely, he thought Christ was OF two natures but not IN two natures.  Jesus was of the same substance with the father, but not of the same substance with man.  Complicated or what!  Eutychianism was rejected at the Fourth Ecumenical Council in Chalcedon in 451 and the statement of faith known as the Chalcedonian Creed makes it very clear, just who Jesus is, and what the scriptures teach us about him.  With the exception of one or two statements which we might find difficult, the Creed of Chalcedon states the orthodox position.  It reads as follows:  

We, then, following the holy Fathers, all with one consent, teach people to confess one and the same Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, the same perfect in Godhead and also perfect in manhood; truly God and truly man, of a reasonable [rational] soul and body; consubstantial [co-essential] with the Father according to the Godhead, and consubstantial with us according to the Manhood; in all things like unto us, without sin; begotten before all ages of the Father according to the Godhead, and in these latter days, for us and for our salvation, born of the Virgin Mary, the Mother of God, according to the Manhood; one and the same Christ, Son, Lord, only begotten, to be acknowledged in two natures, inconfusedly, unchangeably, indivisibly, inseparably; the distinction of natures being by no means taken away by the union, but rather the property of each nature being preserved, and concurring in one Person and one Subsistence, not parted or divided into two persons, but one and the same Son, and only begotten, God the Word, the Lord Jesus Christ; as the prophets from the beginning [have declared] concerning Him, and the Lord Jesus Christ Himself has taught us, and the Creed of the holy Fathers has handed down to us.

27 But from all changes thou art free;
Thy endless years do last for aye.
28 Thy servants, and their seed who be,
Established shall before thee stay.
Psalm 102 (Tune Bedford)

To come closer to recent times, in 2019 a Franciscan monk and Roman Catholic mystic called Fr Richard Rohr, wrote a book, published by SPCK, called “The Universal Christ.”  Rohr is a modern day Gnostic, a man who seems to think that his own private thoughts and imaginations are more relevant and important in understanding the nature of God, than the Bible. He runs an organisation in the USA called the “Centre for Action and Contemplation” and among his many admirers he can count Oprah Winfrey, Melinda Gates and someone who calls himself Bono – a musician of some repute.  Rohr’s views on theology are far from orthodox.  He is a ‘pantheist’ – that is someone who believes that God is in everything.  He speaks of ‘brother moon, and brother fire and so on’ – it sounds totally crazy to those of us who are actually sane.  But what are his views and beliefs about Christ?  Rohr believes that we should separate the word ‘Christ’ from the person called ‘Jesus.’  He’s quite scathing about how western Christianity, and American evangelicalism in particular speaks about ‘Jesus Christ’ as if this name were a person with a name – like we have a name and a surname.  Jesus was simply a man to Rohr, but Christ, on the other hand, is God in everything!  So, yes, God was in Jesus, – just like he is in the birds, and the trees and in you…. 

Rohr actively believes in and promotes the unbiblical ‘Big Bang’ theory of creation, and suggests that the Christ became part of creation at the big bang.  He says that the moment God fused with nature, – with matter – the two became one, and Christ was formed.  He doesn’t believe in the fall of man, – in fact he openly ridicules and mocks it, laughing at the very notion hat the God who created this vast universe would be worried at all, let alone offended, by too any humans eating an apple – to use his words.  Because he doesn’t believe that mankind is fallen, we don’t need a saviour, – so the death of the man Jesus was just a good example for us.  He certainly doesn’t believe in vicarious atonement, – that Jesus died for our sins at Calvary.  His idea of salvation is that we should realise that God is already surrounding us, in nature, therefore we unite with him by meditation, seeing Christ in everything, everywhere and at all times.  Needless to say he doesn’t accept that there will be second coming of the Lord, – no Jesus has already returned, he argues – within YOU.  So, with no fall, and no salvation and no future judgement, Rohr is free to conclude that we should all see Christ in each other, regardless of our religion, and that we should love and respect each other regardless of our lifestyles and choices.  He suggests that this is how to rid the world of nastiness and homophobia and racism and gender inequality and so on.  

If you’ve been able to follow some of the train of Rohr’s thoughts, – and I suggest it’s away off beam, then you will see how close Rohr is to ancient Gnosticism, that early church heresy.  Lie the Gnostics, Rohr has a ‘secret knowledge’ a gnosis that we don’t have – he speaks about his ‘Franciscan tradition of reading the bible.’  He was influenced by the Cistercian Order of Monks, an openly gnostic sect within catholicism, who believe in spirit/matter dualism and strange unbiblical notions about the Godhead.  What he doesn’t believe is that the Bible is the infallible, inspired word of God, – and he certainly doesn’t accept the classic Christian statements of doctrine, our creeds and reformed confessions.  Yet, you will find Richard Rohr books on Amazon and perhaps even in a few Christian Bookshops.  He’s a prolific author, and all his books will teach you ‘spirituality’ that calls itself Christian, but denies the Christ of the Bible.  What does the Bible have to say about Fr Richard Rohr?  1 John 2:21-22 I have not written unto you because ye know not the truth, but because ye know it, and that no lie is of the truth. 22 Who is a liar but he that denieth that Jesus is the Christ? He is antichrist, that denieth the Father and the Son.  John the apostle, says that Richard Rohr is a LIAR.

Finally, in our catechism class for Lord’s Day 14 Q35, I briefly mentioned a heresy called Kenoticism.  That’s a modern day christological error, – or at least modern in the sense that it became widely believed during the doctrinal downgrades of the 19th and early 20th centuries.  The theory, you will remember, was that when he was born at Bethlehem, Jesus laid aside more than just his majesty, but that he laid aside his divinity, so that when he was on earth, he was a man only – not God.  It was the favoured doctrine of the theological liberals, and the higher critics who denied the Virgin Birth, miracles, and Resurrection of Christ.  It was a direct attack on the doctrine of vicarious atonement, too – for the Kenotic Jesus was neither sinless or divine, – just a good man, who would be unacceptable as our representative on the cross, and unacceptable to God.  We’ll deal more fully with how Christ’s nature, as both fully God and fully man benefits us in our next catechism class, question 36.  

So, we have merely skimmed the surface of these historical attacks on the person of Christ – it won’t end there of course. For a recent example, Pastor Rob Bell, a modern day heretic from the so-called ‘emergent church,’ within recent years, in his awful book ‘Love Wins’ launched a vicious attack on the person of Christ and the doctrine of atonement.  It just goes on and on, and it will do until Christ comes, – the devil doing his work, attacking the faith and attacking the church, often using false pastors and teachers to do his nefarious work.  Paul warned us about this in Acts 20:28-30 Take heed therefore unto yourselves, and to all the flock, over the which the Holy Ghost hath made you overseers, to feed the church of God, which he hath purchased with his own blood. 29 For I know this, that after my departing shall grievous wolves enter in among you, not sparing the flock. 30 Also of your own selves shall men arise, speaking perverse things, to draw away disciples after them.

Once again, many thanks for reading this lesson and listening to the podcast – if you’ve made it to the end, well done! 

© Bob McEvoy October 2021

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