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Know your Heretics

In Apologetics, Chrisitian, Christ, Christian, Christianity, Prayer, Satan, Saved, Sin, Trinity on January 3, 2011 at 1:59 pm

Historical Background

Arius (256-336 A.D.) is the most famous heretic of Christian theology. He was born in Libya and died in Constantinople. Arius held a prominent position as a priest in the Church of Alexandria when he started a theological controversy in 318. Arius denied the eternal deity of Christ and his equality with the Father. He argued that Christ was created by the Father. Since the age of the Apostles, Jesus had always been considered divine by his followers, but his precise relation to the Godhead had not yet been defined. Thanks to Arius, the Trinitarian controversy regarding the status of Jesus Christ erupted.

 

Arius’ View of Jesus

Arius did not believe that the Father and the Son were of the same substance. Instead, he believed in the eternal functional and ontological subordination of the Son to the Father—that the Son was a lower being than the Father. According to Arius, the Son was created before time. In other words, he was not co-eternal with the Father. As he put it, “Before he was begotten or created or appointed or established, he did not exist; for he was not unbegotten” (Letter to Eusebius). Furthermore, the Son was not of one divine substance with the Father. He was rather of a similar substance with the Father (homoiousios). On this view, the divine qualities of the Son are given to him by the Father. Arius claimed that when the Scriptures speak of Jesus as the “Son” of God, it is merely a title of honor—a title given to Jesus as the one on whom the Father had lavished a special grace. Thus, Arius says, “He is not God truly, but by participation in grace…He too is called God in name only” (Early Christian Doctrines).

 

Orthodox Response

The theology of Arius became so controversial that Constantine intervened in 325, calling the Council of Nicaea. Athanasius, the leading defender of Nicene orthodoxy and the most prolific writer of orthodox Trinitarian doctrine in the fourth century, saw a major flaw in the writings of Arius and called his heresy the “forerunner of the Antichrist” (Athanasius, Or. Ar. 1:1). According to Athanasius, the Son was eternally begotten from the Father such that he can be said to be of the same essence (homoousios) with the Father: “The Son is other in kind and nature than the creatures, or rather belongs to the Father’s substance and is of the same nature as He.” (Athanasius, Contra Arianos, III).

 

Why Does All This Matter?

There are some today who repeat Arius’ views. However, Jesus claimed to be God and the Christian tradition has held that there is an intimate connection between salvation and the deity of Christ. We are saved from God by God. Only a divine Savior can bear the weight of God’s wrath in atonement. Only Jesus as the God-man can satisfy the enormous debt and penalty caused by human sin against God. No mere human could bridge that gap. Only a divine Savior can pay the costly price of redeeming us from our bondage to sin and death. Only the God-man can conquer all his people’s enemies. Our salvation rests on the infinite capacities of our savior, Jesus Christ.

 

Historical Background

In the early 5th century a debate arose between Pelagius, a British monk, and Augustine, the Bishop of Hippo in North Africa. They disagreed over the relationship between human nature after the Fall and saving, divine grace in Jesus Christ. When Pelagius arrived in Rome and saw the city’s dim view of morality, he developed a reputation for being a spiritual director who urged people to reform their behavior and live lives as upstanding, moral citizens.

 

Pelagius’ View of Sin

Pelagius rejected the doctrines of original sin, substitutionary atonement, and justification by faith. Pelagius emphasized unconditional free will and the ability to better oneself spiritually without grace. This was in direct contrast to Augustine, who believed that humanity was completely helpless in Adam’s sin and in desperate need of grace. Specifically, Pelagius took issue with Augustine’s prayer in his Confessions, which asked God to grant humans grace to act in accordance with his divine commands: “Grant what you command and command what you will.” (Confessions, X. 40). Pelagius rejected the teaching of “original sin,” the results of the Fall upon humanity. According to him, Adam’s sin in no way made humans corrupt, but instead “over the years our sin gradually corrupts us, building an addiction and then holding us bound with what seems like the force of nature itself.” (Letter to Demetrias, VIII). Humans by nature have a clean slate, and it is only through voluntary sin that humans are made wicked. Potentially, then, one could live a sinless life and merit heaven. Pelagius thought that God commanding a person to do something that he lacked the ability to do would be useless: “To call a person to something he considers impossible does him no good.” (Letter to Demetrias, I). If God called humans to live moral lives, Pelagius thought, it should be within their power to carry out such commands.

 

Orthodox Response

Pelagius’ error was deemed heretical in 416 by the Council of Carthage. Originally Adam, Augustine said, possessed freedom—the ability not to sin. After the Fall, all human beings participate in Adam’s sin, which renders them not able not to sin. After the mediation of divine grace in Jesus Christ humans are once again given the ability not to sin. Augustine replied to Pelagius’ views in two treatises: On the Grace of Christ and On Original Sin. Augustine writes: “We must realize that Pelagius believes that neither our will nor our action is helped by divine aid…he believes that God does not help us to will, that he does not help us to act, that he helps us only to be able to will and to act.”(On the Grace of Christ, V.6). Augustine saw Pelagius’ teaching to be a clear denial of Philippians 2:12-13, because Pelagius located the capacity “to will and to do” what pleases God in human nature rather than in God’s grace.”(On the Grace of Christ, V.6 and VI.7).

 

Why Does All This Matter?

Ignoring the consequences the Fall has on everyone leads to a diminishment of the multifaceted work of Christ. In his ministry Jesus not only bore our sins on the cross, but lived a perfect life in obedience to the Father through the power of the Holy Spirit—the life that Adam failed to live—in order to restore fallen humans to their original state of grace. It is not only through the grace of God that humans are initially saved but also through this grace that they are sustained. As Augustine put it, God “guards the weak so that by his gift the saints unfailingly choose the good and unfailingly refuse to abandon it.”(On Rebuke and Grace, 38). Without understanding the magnitude of sin and the plight of humanity, the gracious work of Jesus for us and our salvation seems superfluous. 1 Peter 1:18-19 says: “You were ransomed from the futile ways inherited from your forefathers, not with perishable things such as silver or gold, but with the precious blood of Christ.” Because of sin, humans are not naturally good—that’s why we need Jesus.

The Rise of the Judaizers

A problem arose in the early church when the apostles took the gospel of Jesus to Jews, Samaritans, and Gentiles. When Gentiles responded to the gospel, a conflict arose that threatened to divide the church. A group called the Judaizers opposed Paul and Barnabas at the Council of Jerusalem (AD 50) in Acts 15. They were uncertain that the benefits of the covenant people of God were to be extended to the Gentiles, thus doubting their conversion by the gospel. Paul’s response assures them that the Gentiles had indeed been made partakers in the blessings of the covenant, namely, the Holy Spirit: “And God, who knows the heart, bore witness to them, by giving them the Holy Spirit just as he did to us, and he made no distinction between us and them, having cleansed their hearts by faith” (Acts 15:8-9).

 

The Judaizers’ View of Salvation

The Judaizers were teaching that God still required everyone to observe certain rituals and statutes in order to be accepted by him as Father. Paul, in recounting his confrontation of Peter before the Judaizers, gives us an insight into the teaching of this group (Gal. 2:14). Apparently, the Judaizers were attempting to force Gentile Christians to live under the regulations of the Mosaic Law. They are also called the “circumcision party” (Gal. 2:12), because one of the specific elements of the Law that the Judaizers were forcing the Gentile Christians to live by was the practice of circumcision. Peter had withdrawn himself from eating with Gentile Christians, fearing the opposition that would come from the Judaizers. Eating with Gentiles would have rendered Peter ceremonially unclean under the Old Covenant, by breaking an important element of the Mosaic Law. However, Paul said Peter’s conduct was “not in step with the truth of the gospel” (Gal. 2:14).

 

The Orthodox Response

Paul’s response is given in Galatians 2:16: “We know that a person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ, so we also have believed in Christ Jesus, in order to be justified by faith in Christ and not by works of the law, because by works of the law no one will be justified.” Paul’s other response is found in Galatians 5:12: “I wish those who unsettle you would emasculate themselves!” He suggests self-castration for those who require circumcision for others. Paul made his point clearly. According to Paul and the response drafted at the Council of Jerusalem, the Gentiles were not obligated to follow the restrictions of the Law. They were free in Christ, who had fulfilled the demands of the Law. Paul exhorted the Gentiles to abstain from practices associated with pagan idol worship, not to earn their salvation, but as a response to the life-changing message of the gospel and in gratitude for God’s gift of salvation.

 

Why Does All This Matter?

While the heresy of the Judaizers was put to rest by the Apostle Paul, the idea behind their erroneous belief still permeates the church today. The issues are no longer circumcision or ceremonial uncleanness, but the question of how the law relates to salvation—or how works relate to righteousness—is still something that many Christians remain confused about today. Paul’s exhortation to the Judaizers remains as important as ever. It is not by works that we are saved, but solely by the grace of Christ. In fact, to add anything to the work of Christ for salvation actually negates God’s grace. Paul says, “I do not nullify the grace of God, for if justification were through the law, then Christ died for no purpose” (Gal. 2:21).

 

The Historical Background

Sabellius, a third-century theologian and priest, was a proponent of modalism. Modalism is a non-Trinitarian heresy claiming that the Father, Son and Holy Spirit are simply different modes of God and not distinct persons within the Godhead. Little is known about Sabellius, who was excommunicated in 220 AD, but the teaching attached to his name became infamous and is still with us today.

 

Sabellius’ View of God

The modalists were rightly concerned with maintaining the oneness of God as well as the full deity of Christ. However, this led them to the error of seeing any suggestion that the Son was a distinct person from the Father as creating a duality within the Godhead. Early historian Hippolytus summarized the modalist position as one in which the names “Father,” “Son,” and “Holy Spirit” did not stand for real distinctions in the Godhead, but rather mere names that described the actions of the one God at different times in history. In other words, “Father,” “Son,” and “Spirit” are merely adjectives describing how the one divine Being acts and is perceived. Sabellius used the analogy of the sun to explain his position. In the same way that the sun gives off both light and heat, so also the single divine being radiates in history in different fashions. In creation, the divine Being acts as Father; in redemption, as Son; in the lives of believers, as the Holy Spirit.

 

The Orthodox Response

The orthodox response to the heresy of Sabellius (and other modalists) came from Tertullian, the African theologian. In Against Praxeas, Tertullian argued that Scripture reveals that the Godhead is three who are at the same time one. He rightly considered this an essential doctrine of Christianity. In the Sabellian modalist view, the three are not anything real, but rather just different manifestations of the one. Therefore, Tertullian proposed that we speak of the Godhead as “one substance (substantia) consisting in three persons (persona).” This terminology would serve as the basis for future Latin theology, and it is from Tertullian’s pen that the important Christian word “Trinity” (trinitas) was first inked.

 

Why Does All This Matter?

Sabellianism is one of the heresies in Christendom that keeps appearing again and again in different forms. Anyone who has sat in a Sunday School class and heard that God’s Tri-unity is like water in that it appears to us in three forms (liquid, steam, and ice) has been exposed to a contemporary variation of modalism. God is not one person that exists in three different forms at three different times, but three distinct persons concurrently sharing one common essence. Modalism also reared its ugly head in the classic liberal theology of Friedrich Schleiermacher, and it is even seen today in the “Oneness” sect of Pentecostalism, which clearly denies the doctrine of the Trinity. What is at stake in the debate is not merely fancy theological terminology, but our understanding of God himself. For example, if Sabellian modalism were true, the intimate relationship that existed between the Father and the Son from all eternity (John 17) would be irrational. Modalism undercuts the atoning work of Jesus Christ, as well. If there is only one God who works in different modes of being throughout history, one must question whether Jesus Christ was truly a man, or if he only appeared to be such, as the heresy of Docetism declares. If Jesus Christ is not fully God and fully man, then he cannot be the one mediator between God and man. It is for this reason that the heresy of Sabellian modalism must be rejected, and the biblical doctrine of the Trinity must be affirmed.

Historical Background

In the years following the Council of Nicaea in 325 A.D., the church was wrestling with many questions about the person and work of Christ. At Nicaea, the deity of Christ was established as orthodox Christian teaching, but many questions concerning the person of Christ remained. Apollinarius, named the Bishop of Laodicea in 362 A.D., is responsible for Apollinarianism. This view compromises the full humanity of Jesus by suggesting that the eternal logos (Word) replaced the human soul of Jesus and served as the life-giving principle in the body of Christ.

 

Apollinarius’ View of Jesus

Apollinarius says, “The flesh, being dependent for its motions on some other principle of movement and action…is not of itself a complete living entity, but in order to become one enters into fusion with something else. So it united itself with the heavenly governing principle [the Logos] and was fused with it…Thus out of the moved and the mover was compounded a single living entity—not two, nor one compound of two complete, self-moving principles” (Apollinarius, “Fragment 107”). J.N.D. Kelly, a prominent scholar of doctrinal history, writes, “The presupposition of this argument is that the divine Word was substituted for the normal human psychology in Christ.” Put differently, the humanity that was assumed in the incarnation was not a complete humanity but lacked a significant component of personhood. Apollinarius believed, then, that Jesus was only partially human.

 

The Orthodox Response

The teaching of Apollinarius was condemned at Antioch in 378 and 379 and by the Council of Constantinople in 381. The primary defender of theological orthodoxy was Gregory of Nazianzus, a 4th century Eastern theologian and the Archbishop of Constantinople. He saw Apollinarius as compromising the saving work of Jesus: “If anyone has put his trust in him as a man without a human mind, he is really bereft of mind, and quite unworthy of salvation. For that which he has not assumed he has not healed; but that which is united to his Godhead is also saved. If only half Adam fell, then that which Christ assumes and saves may be half also; but if the whole of his nature fell, it must be united to the whole nature of Him that was begotten, and so be saved as a whole” (“To Cledonius Against Apollinarius”). In other words, if all of Adam was lost and ruined by the Fall, then Christ, the second Adam, must put on all that Adam possessed in order to restore human nature and live the life that Adam failed to live. These issues regarding salvation motivated Gregory to articulate a Christology faithful to the Bible.

 

Why Does All This Matter?

If Apollinarius is right and the “Word” replaced the human soul of Jesus, we are left wondering how Christ can be fully human. Far from lacking a normal human psychology, the Gospels depict Jesus as being completely human in the way he experienced sorrow, pain, and other genuinely human experiences. Certainly Jesus Christ was fully God, as the council of Nicaea maintained, but he was also fully man. And it was his deity—as well as his humanity—that allowed him to be our perfect substitute, the mediator between God and humanity for us and for our salvation.


 

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