Early Heresies and Our Understanding of the Nature of Christ

J.P.'s latest post about perspicuity reminds me that while the basics of the Christian faith are really pretty clear, there is much in the Bible that is not always clear upon a casual reading. (And, of course, those who go in without the guidance of the Holy Spirit will find the matters discussed wholly incomprehensible. See Matthew 13.) Many of the doctrines that unfortunately divide the church arise out of some of the doctrines that arise from the gray areas like the Calvinism/Arminianism debate. Another area where the single correct understanding of the Bible is not immediately clear can be found in the Biblical teaching on the nature of Jesus Christ. Was he a man or was he God or was he something else?

I recently came across a video by Timothy Paul Jones, the C. Edwin Gheens Professor of Christian Family Ministry at the Southern Baptist Theological Institute, entitled "What are some of the ancient heresies about Jesus Christ we should know." This short video -- only three minutes in length -- gives a very brief summation of how the church's decision to treat various viewpoints as heresies tells us something important about the beliefs of the Christian Church with respect to the nature of Jesus from the very earliest times. I invite the readers to watch this short video, immediately below.




Prof. Jones notes that many of the heresies of the early church came out of failed interpretations of four basic understandings about Jesus: (1) Jesus was fully man, (2) Jesus was fully God, (3) Jesus was one person, and (4) Jesus has two distinct natures (divine and human). He then points out that many of the teachings of the early church rejected as heresies deny or affirm aspects of each of these. Prof Jones specifically identifies various heresies, and the purpose of this post is to supply links to additional information that may be found about these early heresies.

Affirming Jesus' Humanity but Denying His Divinity:

Two heresies of the early church were Ebionism and Arianism. Ebionism was the teaching by a group of Jewish Christians which, according to Collins English Dictionary entry on Ebionism, said that "Jesus was a mortal human being, that Christians should adhere to Jewish law and that the absence of wealth was a preferred religious quality." The Encyclopedia Britannica entry on Ebionites provides more detail: >br />
They believed in one God and taught that Jesus was the Messiah and was the true “prophet” mentioned in Deuteronomy 18:15. They rejected the Virgin Birth of Jesus, instead holding that he was the natural son of Joseph and Mary. The Ebionites believed Jesus became the Messiah because he obeyed the Jewish Law.
The Arians, a sect that existed around the 4th Century AD, were similar to the Ebionites in that they also accepted Jesus' humanity while denying his divinity. As stated by GotQuestions.com's article on Arianism, "Arius [the founder of Arianism] held that Jesus was created by God as the first act of creation, that Jesus was the crowning glory of all creation. Arianism, then, is the view that Jesus was a created being with divine attributes, but was not divine in and of Himself." Thus, like Ebionism, Arianism affirmed Jesus' humanity but not his divinity.


Affirming Jesus' Divinity but Denying His Humanity:

The example provided by Prof. Jones in the second category are the Docetists. A succinct description of the beliefs of those who held to Docetism can be found at GotQuestions.com's article on Docetism, and reads as follows:
Docetism allowed that Jesus may have been in some way divine, but it denied His full humanity. Hardcore Docetists taught that Jesus was only a phantasm or an illusion, appearing to be human but having no body at all. Other forms of Docetism taught that Jesus had a “heavenly” body of some type but not a real, natural body of flesh.
Thus, as noted by Prof. Jones, the Docetic heresy can largely be understood as the denial of the humanity of Christ. Sure, Jesus was God, but God could not be human.


Denial of the One Person/Two Natures of Jesus:

Some sects also deemed heretical by the early church were the proponents of Eutychianism and Monophysitism. Both sects were very similar, but the Monophysitists denounced the Eutychianists for reasons that are not clear to me as their beliefs are so similar that most sites providing information on these two sects treat them as being one and the same. Regardless, both of these sects denied the two natures of Christ, and both arose in response to the Nestorian sect's fallacy of holding that Jesus had two completely separate people in one body -- a human and a divine. As noted in the New Advent Encyclopedia article on Eutychianism,
The error [of Eutychianism] took its rise in a reaction against Nestorianism, which taught that in Christ there is a human hypostasis or person as well as a Divine. This was interpreted to imply a want of reality in the union of the Word with the assumed Humanity, and even to result in two Christs, two Sons, though this was far from the intention of Nestorius himself in giving his incorrect explanation of the union. He was ready to admit one prósopon, but not one hypostasis, a "prosopic" union, though not a "hypostatic" union, which is the Catholic expression. He so far exaggerated the distinction of the Humanity from the Divine Person Who assumed it, that he denied that the Blessed Virgin could be called Mother of God, Theotókos.
In other words, Nestorians believed in a Jesus that could be somewhat seen like Gollum in The Lord of the Rings -- a single body inhabited by two separate beings. This Nestorian teaching was so abhorrent that the Eutychianists responded by claiming that the two natures were so intertwined in Jesus that he wasn't really either human or divine. Rather, Jesus was a unique being who did not have a truly human or divine nature. As stated in GotQuestions.com's article on Monophysitism:
Monophysitism taught that Christ has one nature—a divine one—not two. Eutychianism specifically taught that Christ’s divine nature was so intermixed with His human nature that He was, in fact, not fully human and not fully divine. Eutychianism and monophysitism are a denial of the biblical teaching of the hypostatic union, that Christ’s two natures are united yet distinct.
So, these two heresies went too far by departing from the Christian view that Jesus was fully man and fully God -- at the same time!

What's the point? The point is this: the fact that these various viewpoints were deemed heresies shows that from the very beginning of the Christian church, the church began to take stands against various heresies that arose regarding the identity of Christ. These heresies were not apparent upon a casual reading of the texts, but required both study and reflection on the Biblical texts as a whole. Certainly, it must have been very difficult for people in the early church to come to grips with the idea that Jesus was both fully God and fully man -- two natures in one person. Bible Study Tools statement in its article on Ebionites makes this point very artfully:
On the other hand we have to consider the psychological difficulty involved in a person recognizing that anyone whom he daily met, whom he saw eating and sleeping like other men, was more than man, was Divine. This difficulty, great to all, was doubly so to the Jew.
Nevertheless when the early Christians grappled with these different teachings and reflected on the entire Word of God, they stood together in holding as orthodox only those positions that affirmed that Jesus was fully human, fully divine, and was one person with two separate, distinct natures. Were there those who tried to push non-orthodox views about the identiyy of Jesus at the time? As shown above, the answer is certainly just as there exists today people and movements that deny any of the four basic understandings about Jesus' identity. Yet, we can rest assured that these sects (which today would probably be denominated cults of Christianity) have been examined and found wanting from the very earliest days of Christianity because the earliest Christians had to struggle with the Biblical teachings about Jesus and came to clear, certain answers that Christians today can still rely upon.

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