Since Jesus of Nazareth strode on the scene over two-thousand years ago, calling followers and proclaiming that the Kingdom of Heaven had come, everyone, from His most intimate-followers, to theologians hundreds of years later, has questioned and argued about who He is.
Since then, many prominent heresies have evolved over the centuries, some evolving from Greek philosophies, while others came from the conjurations of prominent theologians and church leaders. I hope you will find this survey useful, particularly when you encounter one of the modern-renditions of these ancient heresies. Yes, “Old heresies never die, they just get a new look”.
Why does it matter?
If “Universalism“, the belief that everyone goes to Heaven – regardless, is true, my life would be SO much easier, because it wouldn’t matter what I believe or teach, or how I live my life, but the Bible doesn’t leave us that option open. Who Jesus is matters because it is a core-matter of our salvation, so it DOES matter what I believe and teach, and it DOES matter how I live my life.
From the outset, I must state that I believe that the Bible is the inspired Word of God. It is true, so what it says is true and normative.
Denying Jesus’ Deity
While few would have denied Jesus’ total-humanity, many in His time denied His deity. The Jews, with their strictly-monotheistic understand of God, were adamantly-opposed to any notion that Jesus could be both God and Man, and that became the crux of the Jewish leaders’ sham-trial before His crucifixion (Matthew 26:57-68; Mark 14:60-64; Luke 22:66-71).
The Ebionites were one of the first groups of Jews who denied the deity of Christ. They accepted that Jesus might be the Messiah, but they believed that the Messiah was merely a human, not the God-Man. The Arians, another sect of the Jews, believed that the Son of God existed before the birth of Christ, but that He was a created being, albeit God’s “premier-creation”. As such, He could not be divine. We find a similar heresy espoused by the Jehovah’s Witnesses, whose “New World” translation of the Bible has been heavily-altered from the original manuscripts to suit their doctrinal-beliefs.
Docetism was the belief that the gods sometimes appeared to take on a human-form. We see this in Acts 14:1-13; after Paul had healed a lame man, the locals believed that Paul and Barnabas were “gods“, and tried to worship them. There were some in the early church who believed that Jesus only “appeared” to be human, but really wasn’t. Instead, He only seemed to possess physicality. His body was an illusion, something that looked real, but in fact was not part of the physical order at all.
Docetism was popular among the Gentiles of the 1st century because they were heavily-influenced by Greek philosophy which downplayed the value of our human-physicality. The Greek’s philosophy of the resurrection was “resurrection FROM the body“, not “resurrection OF the body“.
John, in his first Epistle, soundly debunks this notion with eye-witness evidence. If John was an attorney today, he would have pictures, video footage, news coverage, and anything else he could gather for this case. That is the picture he has painted for us in the opening verses of 1st John.
There is still “Docetism-lite” in our day. Nobody, that I know of, will outright-deny the humanity of Christ, but when pressed to recognize the fullness of His humanity, they will waffle a bit. The “details” of His humanity make them uncomfortable, because if they own the fullness of His humanity, it has giant implications for how they view their own bodies, which they don’t necessarily “like“. There are parts of the “male-experience” which many men are embarrassed about, maybe even ashamed of, BUT, if Jesus was fully-human, “one of us“, and He experienced many of the same “male-experiences” we do, then He “normalized” our “male-experiences” and we have nothing to be embarrassed about or ashamed-of. Yes, it matters that He had the same male anatomy and physiology as every man who has ever lived or will live. Because of recent denials of the deity of Jesus Christ, it is easy for us to become so focused on defending His deity that we neglect His humanity, which is why we need a balanced, robust Christology.
Jesus, throughout His earthly-sojourn, was never recorded as saying something like “Why, Oh God, did we make men this way?“, as if He had just discovered some previously-unknown “design-flaw” or “undesirable-feature”. Everything was made with a purpose, on-purpose.
If Jesus only “appeared” to be human, how did He eat and drink all the times that are recorded in the Gospels? How did He eat the Last Supper? Sorry, but that heresy doesn’t hold water, because there is way too much evidence to the contrary.
If Jesus only “appeared” to be human, He only “appeared” to die on the Cross, He only “appeared” to rise again from the dead, thus we only “appear” to be saved, which means that we are HORRIBLY-LOST.
Gnosticism was perhaps the most dangerous heresy that threatened the early church during the first three centuries. Influenced by such philosophers as Plato, Gnosticism is based on two false premises. First, it espouses a dualism regarding spirit and matter. Gnostics assert that matter is inherently evil and spirit is good. As a result of this presupposition, Gnostics believe anything done in the body, even the grossest sin, has no meaning because real life exists in the spirit realm only.
Second, Gnostics claim to possess an elevated knowledge, a “higher truth” known only to a certain few. Gnosticism comes from the Greek word gnosis which means “to know.” Gnostics claim to possess a higher knowledge, not from the Bible, but acquired on some mystical higher plane of existence. Gnostics see themselves as a privileged class elevated above everybody else by their higher, deeper knowledge of God.
The Person of Jesus Christ is another area where Christianity and Gnosticism drastically differ. The Gnostics believe that Jesus’ physical body was not real, but only “seemed” to be physical, and that His spirit descended upon Him at His baptism, but left Him just before His crucifixion. Such views destroy not only the true humanity of Jesus, but also the atonement, for Jesus must not only have been truly God, but also the truly human (and physically-real) man who actually suffered and died upon the cross in order to be the acceptable substitutionary sacrifice for sin (Hebrews 2:14-17). The biblical view of Jesus affirms His complete humanity as well as His full deity.
Docetism and Gnosticism are “kissing-cousins” in regard to the person and work of Christ.
While hard-core Docetism didn’t survive for long, because Christians quickly realized the importance of Jesus possessing a true human nature, Docetic tendencies didn’t disappear entirely. Some thinkers taught a view of Christ that effectively-eliminated His true-humanity, while not going as far as teaching that Jesus only “appeared” to be human. One such heresy was Eutychianism, named for Eutyches, a fifth-century monk.
Eutyches taught that Christ only possesses one nature, not two, and that His divine nature swallowed-up or absorbed His human-nature, such that what is left in one theanthropic nature (from the Greek theos, “God“, and anthropos, “man“), Instead of being one person with two natures, human and divine, as Orthodox Christology asserts, the Eutychian Christ is one person with one nature.
The result is the denial of BOTH His divinity AND His humanity. If the divine nature of Christ absorbs the human nature of Christ, we are left with a composite-nature that is neither truly-human or truly-divine, Instead, it is a third kind of nature, that of a “divine-human“.
That leaves us with at least two problems. First, it makes many descriptions of Jesus in Scripture misleading, because the Eutychian Jesus cannot be subject to the normal, non-sinful limitations of humanity. Mathew 8:24 says that He was asleep in the boat, but, if God doesn’t grow weary (Isaiah 40:28), and Christ’s deity absorbs His humanity, the limitations of tiredness were overcome and Jesus must have just been pretending to be asleep. Second, If Jesus does not possess both a true human-nature AND a true divine-nature, He cannot represent both God and Man. He also can’t be the perfect Mediator between God and His people. Only a perfect human-being can pay for the sins of other human-beings, but if Christ doesn’t have a true human-nature, He could not atone for our sins, and we are doomed to Hell.
Say-what-ism? Some people tend to over-think some things, and Apollinaris was no exception. Even though he started his career believing Orthodox theology he couldn’t leave well-enough alone. The Bible teaches that human-beings have two constituent-parts, a physical, mortal body, and an immortal soul (Matthew 10:28), but Apollinaris believed that human-beings are made of THREE constituent-parts, a physical body, a “lower” soul that animates the physical body, and a “higher” soul or spirit that is equivalent to the rational mind that humans possess.
So what about Jesus Christ? Apollinaris believed that, in the person of Jesus Christ, the Logos, or divine-aspect of the Savior replaced His “higher” spirit. Jesus, then, had a human body, a “lower” human soul, and a divine spirit. Apollinaris effectively-denied that the seat of rational-thought in our Savior is truly-human. He compromised Jesus’ true-humanity by denying that He posses a human-mind or soul, since the human mind or soul is an essential component that makes human-beings human. He might as well have been a “divine-monkey“, because without a human soul, He wasn’t truly-human, and we are still truly-lost.
Nestorius really took heresy to a whole new level. While all the previous heresies at least acknowledged that Jesus was one person, Nestorius believed that Jesus was the “union” of two persons, a human-person, and a divine-person. This is not a union of essences, but rather a close, moral union. In other words, Nestorius believed the union was not such that we could say the humanity of Jesus actually belongs to the Son of God.
Is your head spinning yet, because if it isn’t, it soon will be…
Nestorius believed that, when Christ died, it was not the Incarnate Son of God suffering according to His human-nature; it was the “other“, human, person that died. When Christ performed a miracle, it was not the Incarnate Son of God acting according to His divine-nature to manifest His power; it was the “other” person, the divine Logos acting independently of the human-person of Jesus Christ.
This raises some puzzling questions about the atonement. If Christ is two persons, who died on the cross? It cannot be the infinite person of the Son, since He didn’t assume a human-nature. He only possesses a divine nature, which cannot experience suffering or die. So, it must have been the “other” person, the human-being, who suffered and died because the human person in Christ has a human-nature, which CAN experience suffering. But then we have the death only of a finite person, because humans are finite. The merit of a finite human sacrifice could hardly be applied to anyone besides the finite person who offers it.
The Westminster Larger Catechism addresses this quite succinctly in questions 37-40:
Q. 37. How did Christ, being the Son of God, become man? A. Christ the Son of God became man, by taking to himself a true body, and a reasonable soul, being conceived by the power of the Holy Ghost in the womb of the virgin Mary, of her substance, and born of her, yet without sin.
Q. 38. Why was it requisite that the Mediator should be God? A. It was requisite that the Mediator should be God, that he might sustain and keep the human nature from sinking under the infinite wrath of God, and the power of death, give worth and efficacy to his sufferings, obedience, and intercession; and to satisfy God’s justice, procure his favor, purchase a peculiar people, give his Spirit to them, conquer all their enemies, and bring them to everlasting salvation.
Q. 39. Why was it requisite that the Mediator should be man? A. It was requisite that the Mediator should be man, that he might advance our nature, perform obedience to the law, suffer and make intercession for us in our nature, have a fellow-feeling of our infirmities; that we might receive the adoption of sons, and have comfort and access with boldness unto the throne of grace.
Q. 40. Why was it requisite that the Mediator should be God and man in one person? A. It was requisite that the Mediator, who was to reconcile God and man, should himself be both God and man, and this in one person, that the proper works of each nature might be accepted of God for us, and relied on by us as the works of the whole person.
Thus, the Westminster Larger Catechism 38 says that Christ had to be God – He had to be a divine-person with a human-nature so as to give His human suffering sufficient worth to atone for many (Heb. 5:9). Nestorianism gives us an insufficient atonement. So much for substitutionary-atonement…
Where does Mary fit?
No discussion of Jesus of Nazareth would be complete without sorting out Mary’s role in the Incarnation. While her role as His mother must be recognized, she is NOT, as the Catholics believe, the “Mother of God“. God has no “mother“! Period! Mary gave birth to the pre-existing Son of God in His Incarnation (John 1:1-4, 14). She is the theotokis, the “God-bearer“. While Protestants tend to under-play Mary’s significance in the Gospel narrative, Catholics go way-overboard in the opposite direction, even “venerating” and praying to her. Mary is NOT, as they suppose, the “4th member of the Godhead“, and we are not told anywhere in Scripture to worship her, or any other departed Saint, for that matter. She was also NOT “virgin-born“(immaculately-conceived), “sinless“, or a “perpetual-virgin“. In fact, the Gospels attribute at least six other children to Mary and Joseph, four brothers, who are named, and “sisters“, which means at least two, who are unnamed.
Mary was a young, ordinary peasant girl, who was chosen by God for an extraordinary mission, to conceive and bear the Incarnate Son of God. She was the “woman” foretold in Genesis 3:15 from whom the Savior of the world would come, and she was the “virgin” spoken of in Isaiah 7:14, who was to conceive and bear “Immanuel, God with us“. Ordinary-girl – extraordinary mission!
What if one of these heresies is actually true, or parts of them are true? Every one of these heresies questions the validity of both what Jesus said about Himself, and what the greater-volume of Scripture says about Him, so if one or more of them are true, Jesus was a fraud, and the Bible is an ancient book of made-up history and fairy-tales, worth little more than as a “guide-to-moral-living”. Oh, but if Jesus was a fraud and the Bible is a lie, it isn’t even a decent “guide-to-moral-living”…
Christology – the doctrine of Christ, who He is, and what He has done, really DOES matter, because if you have an “unqualified” or “insufficient” Christ, there is NO salvation – period.
Sola Deo Gloria!