Dale Appleby

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Leaning too far: misunderstanding the truth about Christ and God

Leaning too far:  misunderstanding the truth about Christ and God

As Christians developed their understanding of what the Scriptures taught about the nature of Christ and the nature of God, some explanations were not quite right. Some needed more fine tuning, and some were so wrong that they destroyed the heart of the Christian faith.  Many of these controversies came to a head in the fourth and fifth centuries. The Great Creeds were the church's attempt to state the scriptural teaching.

Here is a simple summary of the more famous heresies, together with some suggestions about how these beliefs can still be seen today. They are grouped under three headings:

References to books with more information are given at the end.

1. Emphasising the Humanity of Christ

1.1 Ebionism: Jesus is human but not God

This teaching developed in the second century. It is associated with a Jewish Christian group known as the “Ebionites” (from a word meaning “the poor”). It denied the divinity of Jesus and regarded him as just a human. Later more sophisticated versions of this developed (see below).
Kelly 139f Karkkainen 64

The belief that Jesus was just a human and not God in any sense is held by many outside the church, but some who claim to be Christians also hold views like this, eg Unitarians.

1.2 Adoptionism (or dynamic monarchianism): God adopted Jesus

At the end of the second century and the beginning of the third, a teaching emerged that has been called “dynamic monarchianism”, or more accurately, “adoptionism”. It states that Jesus was only a man, but a very good man. God’s Spirit or the Christ descended on him at his baptism and then he had the power to do miracles. But he was not divine (although some said that he was deified after the resurrection).

Paul of Samosata who lived in the mid third century is a famous representative of this teaching. He said the “Word” was in Jesus but denied any self-existence or personality to this Word – it was just what God commanded Jesus to say or do. The “Son” was just the church’s name for the inspired man Jesus Christ and the “Spirit” was just a way of referring to the grace given to the apostles. This teaching aimed to protect the idea that God was one. God was the Father alone who created everything. The term “monarchianism” refers to the unity of God.
Kelly 115f, 117f , 316f Karkkainen 67

The idea that Jesus was a great human who was filled with God’s Spirit or even adopted later into God’s life is attractive to those who want to emphasise the power humans have to change their lives and world. It is also attractive to those who downplay the supernatural, or who want humans to be the measure of what is right and the ones who should be in control of their lives. The Qur’an claims that Jesus was created like Adam, and that they did not kill him or crucify him, but only thought they did, and he was lifted up to God.

2.  Emphasising the Divinity of Christ

2.1 Docetism: Jesus is divine but not really human

This teaching claims that Christ’s humanity and sufferings were unreal (docetism comes from a word that means “appears or seems”). It was related to Greek ideas of divine impassibility (God cannot suffer) and the impurity of matter. So Christ did not come in the flesh but only as spirit and just appeared as flesh. The sufferings on the cross were an illusion because the body was an illusion.
Kelly 141f Karkkainen 64

Modern versions of this belief occur in many forms where Christians spiritualise the Christian faith and regard the heavenly and spiritual as superior to the human and earthly. It can be seen in approaches to the Bible that see it as a divine book in a way that ignores the humanity of the human authors – where the historical and biblical contexts are ignored in favour of a direct spiritual inspiration. It can be seen in both Biblical literalism and in a spiritualising of the Bible.

2.2 Apollinarianism: Christ is divine with his human nature and mind taken up into divinity

Apollinarius of Laodicea (310-390), rejected the idea that Jesus had a human mind and will. The flesh of Jesus was joined in absolute oneness of being with the Godhead. Jesus had one nature composed of impassible divinity and passible flesh. He taught that the divine Word was substituted for the normal human psychology in Christ. The purely divine mind replaced the real human mind in Jesus. Others objected that this was virtually docetic and showed that Jesus was not a real human. If Christ lacked the human mind and will, he was not really human. This view also clashes with the gospel picture. Furthermore without a human rational soul and will the Word cannot save because that is where sin was committed.
Kelly 289 Karkkainen 73

This belief shows itself in the focus on Jesus as a person with great divine power using his human body as a kind of vehicle for his divine activity. Where the humanity of Jesus is downplayed he can be seen as a kind of supernatural super hero. And the consequence is that Christians may see themselves in the same kind of way, focussing on spiritual power or experience and treating ordinary human abilities and activities as inferior.

2.3 Nestorianism: Christ is two persons who are not really joined together

Nestorius came from Antioch but was made the Patriarch of Constantinople in 428. He probably did not hold the belief he was accused of teaching – at least not in the form of what is called Nestorianism. This teaching arose from concerns Nestorius had about the term “theotokos” (bearer of God) as it was applied to Mary. He wanted another term added to it (“anthropotokos” –human-bearing), or better in his view was “Christotokos” – Christ-bearing. He claimed that the God-head could not be carried in a woman’s womb for 9 months, or wrapped in baby clothes, or buried in a tomb. The solution was to describe Jesus Christ as being two persons joined together in a kind of moral union, not in a real union. The idea was to keep the two natures of Christ separate, so as not to say that God died or suffered (or was born).
Kelly 310, 324 Karkkainen 76

A modern form of this belief is the tendency to separate the human from the divine and to keep the divine as an experience which is separate from ordinary human experience. Christians who separate their life into spiritual and non-spiritual parts can act out this belief. It tends to keep God out of the ordinary business of life, and make more of religious experiences.

2.4  Monophysitism (or Eutychianism) Christ has one nature only: the human is absorbed in the divine

Cyril of Alexander was a strong opponent of Nestorianism and put forward what appeared to be a doctrine that Christ had only one nature. Eutyches was a monk in Constantinople (378–454), who put forward the idea that the human and divine natures of Christ which he received from Mary and his Father were merged into a single nature in which the divine absorbed the human. This was a docetic form of monophysitism, similar to Apollinarianism. (Monophysite – having one nature).
Kelly 331f, 341f Karkkainen 75

Like Apollinarianism this belief tends to downplay the human aspect of Christian life and focuses on the divine and spiritual. In reading the Bible it tends to ignore the human and historical background of the text as though it is only a spiritual message from God.

3.  Protecting the Unity of God

3.1  Economic Trinitarianism: God is one, and shows himself in different aspects at different times.

Irenaeus, who lived in the second century, helped to develop an early understanding of the doctrine of the Trinity. God in himself is Father of all things and is one, but contains in himself from eternity his Word and his Wisdom. In creation and redemption God manifests Word and Wisdom as Son and Spirit. “…by the very essence and nature of his being there is but one God, … according to the economy of our redemption there are both Father and Son …” [quoted by Kelly 105]. The main idea is that God is known to act as Word and Spirit in the economy of our salvation, that is in the way he carries out our salvation. This early idea of Trinity is not of three co-equal persons but of a single person, the Father who is the Godhead itself, who acts in history with his mind or rationality and his wisdom. Unlike modalism the three were real distinctions in the eternal being of the Father. Later forms of Economic Trinitarianism may be correct as descriptions of how the Triune God acts in our salvation. However on its own this view either does not do justice to the eternal relations of the three persons in the Godhead, or confuses the intrinsic relations with the economic actions of the Trinity.

Kelly 108f

The sophisticated and controversial aspect of this concerns whether Christ was subordinate to his Father only while he was on earth, or whether the Son was eternally subordinate to the Father (ie whether the economic Trinity is also the ontological Trinity). Some extend this principle of subordination to human relations in marriage and the church. The more popular versions are probably modalistic (see below).

3.2  Modalism (or Modalistic monarchianism, or Sabellianism) God is one and expresses himself in different operations

This teaching tried to hold together the oneness of God and the divinity of Christ. It taught that the Word or Son was not a distinct person from, or other than, the Father. Early versions of the teaching accepted the idea of patripassianism (ie that the Father suffered on the cross. The theory is that if Christ was God he must be identical with the Father).

In the third century Sabellius developed a more sophisticated version. He said that the Godhead was a monad that expressed itself in three operations (he used the analogy of the sun that radiates warmth and light). The Father was the form or essence and the Son and Spirit were modes of self-expression. The one Godhead was the Father. For redemption the Godhead was projected like a ray of the sun and then withdrawn. Then later the same Godhead operated as Spirit.
An important problem was how could different members of the Trinity appear at the same time in the act of salvation if they are merely different names for the one being?
Kelly 119f, Karkkainen 68

This is a common attempt to make sense of the Trinity while maintaining the unity of God. There are different versions. Some describe the different persons of the Trinity as the one God acting under different forms or names in different eras. Others think of the persons of the Trinity as attributes or characteristics of God not as self existing persons within the Godhead.

3.3   Arianism: The Son is not God

In the early fourth century Arius, from Alexandria, developed ideas that were already being discussed concerning the absolute uniqueness and transcendence of God. He and others said that since God was indivisible the being or essence of the Godhead could not be shared or communicated. So everything else must have come to exist by an act of creation out of nothing. God is God the Father. The Son is the one God used for creation etc. Titles such as Son of God were courtesy titles only. Therefore (according to Kelly p227f),

1. The Son must be a creature whom the Father formed out of nothing.
2. As a creature the Son must have had a beginning
3. The Son can have no communion with and no direct knowledge of his Father.
4. The Son must be liable to change and even to sin.

Kelly 226f, 236f

The sophisticated version of this is seen in the doctrines of the Jehovah’s Witnesses. It is seen also in beliefs about Jesus that regard him as a supernaturally endowed or even divine person but not the same kind of being as God, or that see the Father as superior to the Son.


JND Kelly Early Christian Doctrines 5th Revised Edition 1977 Continuum Publishers ISBN 0826452523
Velli-Matti Karkkainen Christology: A Global Introduction 2003 Baker Academic ISBN 0801026210

Dale Appleby 2007

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