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Know Your Heretics part 2

In Apologetics on January 9, 2011 at 11:12 pm

Know Your Heretics part 2

 

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.

 

Questioning the Trinity

After the Council of Nicaea in 325, the orthodox understanding of the doctrine of the Trinity as three persons sharing one divine essence was not universally agreed upon. One theologian who disagreed was Photinus, the Bishop of Sirmium and the disciple of Marcellus.

 

 

 

Did God Choose a Man to Become His Son?

The theology of Photinus veered close to adoptionism by suggesting that the man Jesus was chosen by God to be his Son when he was in Mary’s womb. Photinus denied the doctrine of the pre-existence of the Son.

 

“Photinus elevates man to the place of Son…”

 

Ambrose described Photinus’ theology in his De Fide: “We say that God is One, not as does Photinus, holding that the Son first came into existence in the Virgin’s womb.”

 

Hilary of Poitiers also spoke of the theology of Photinus in his De Trinitate:

 

Sabellius denies that there is a Son of God; against him Photinus elevates man to the place of Son. Photinus will hear nothing of a Son born before the worlds… Our present adversaries are ranted in the matter of the Divine nature of the Son… Photinus is convicted of ignorance, or else of falsehood, in his denial of the Son’s birth before the worlds…Photinus maintains His manhood, though in maintaining it he forgets that Christ was born as God before the worlds.

In other words, Photinus did not believe that the second person of the Trinity—the divine Word, the Son of God—existed with the Father in eternity past. He believed there is no second person of the Trinity that existed before the human person Jesus of Nazareth.

 

 

 

The Word Was With God in the Beginning

The most straightforward response to this denial of the pre-existence of the Son is found in John 1:1-3. This passage explicitly expresses the fact that the Word, Jesus—who “became flesh and dwelt among us” (John 1:14)—existed from before creation with the Father. Indeed, it was through him that all things were created.

 

Hilary of Poitiers cites John 5:17-19 to show that the works of the Father are often executed by the Son. Hilary argued that because the Son has the power to do the same things as the Father, he must have the same nature.

 

“The Word existed from before creation with the Father”

 

Contrary to Photinus’ teaching, the Father and the Son co-existed in complete equality from eternity past, and it was the second, eternally-existing person of the Trinity who took on flesh and became incarnate in Jesus Christ, the Son of God.

Contemporary Relevance: Jesus Is Fully God

The error of Photinus is important for several reasons. If the Son did not exist eternally with God the Father, then he cannot be fully and completely God. If the Son is merely a man chosen by God to be his son, then Jesus cannot be fully God and fully man.

 

This error would obliterate the doctrine of the atonement. The reason that Christ can satisfy the wrath of God is that he is fully God, and the reason that he can represent humanity is that he is fully man. Without the doctrine of the pre-existence of the Son, Jesus is merely a man who lived a good life as a spiritual teacher here on earth but can in no way be the savior of the world.

 

 

 

The Most Formidable of Heretics

 

Marcion is one of the most significant heretics in Christian history. His teachings captivated many for centuries after him. Henry Chadwick called Marcion “the most radical and to the church the most formidable of heretics.”

 

Marcion’s Two Gods and Gutted Bible

Marcion taught that there were two Gods: Yahweh, the cruel God of the Old Testament, and Abba, the kind father of the New Testament. Because of this belief, he eliminated the Old Testament as Scriptures and kept only 10 letters of Paul and two-thirds of Luke’s gospel for his version of the New Testament. He also deleted all references to Jesus’ Jewishness. Marcion’s “New Testament”—the first to be compiled—forced the church to decide on a core of what was considered Scripture: the four Gospels and the letters of Paul.

 

Making the Bible “More Spiritual”

Marcion’s heretical teachings destroyed the humanity of Christ and assaulted the Christian Scriptures. Because Marcion interpreted Christianity through the lens of a Gnostic philosophy that saw all created things as evil, he wanted to dismiss anything from the Bible that was concerned with the earthly realm. This caused him to cut from the Bible most of the Old and New Testament birth narratives. In his book Antitheses he made a list of what he saw as contradictions between the Old and New Testaments. He saw the God of the Old Testament as the creator of a miserable world, as the author of evil, and as nothing like the Father of Jesus. Because of his disdain for the material world, Marcion argued that any divine redeemer could not be born of a woman. For this reason, he rejected the story of Jesus’ birth.

 

Tertullian and Irenaeus Lead the Charge Against Marcion

Marcion’s heresy prompted the church to push back and officially recognize the Old Testament as Scripture. Furthermore, his rejection of the humanity of Jesus energized the church to develop a complete defense of it. Tertullian did exactly this in his work Against Marcion in 207-208. Tertullian saw Marcion’s denial of Christ’s humanity as detrimental to Christianity: “The sufferings of Christ will be found not to warrant faith in him. For he suffered nothing [if he] did not truly suffer; and a phantom could not truly suffer. God’s entire work therefore is subverted. Christ’s death, wherein lies the whole weight and fruit of the Christian name, is denied.” Irenaeus also challenged Marcion, saying,

 

He mutilated the Gospel according to Luke, removing all the narratives of the Lord’s birth, and also removing much of the teaching of the discourses of the Lord wherein he is most manifestly described as acknowledging the maker of this universe to be his father. Thus [Marcion] persuaded his disciples that he himself was more trustworthy than the apostles, who handed down the Gospel; though he gave to them not a Gospel but a fragment of a Gospel.

Irenaeus writes, Marcion “says that salvation will be of our souls only, of those souls which have learned his teaching; the body, because… it is taken from the earth, cannot partake in salvation.” While Marcion was excommunicated from the church in Rome in 144, because he was a wealthy man, he was able to establish quite a following through the next several centuries.

 

Marcion’s Views Alive Today

Marcion is relevant today because some contemporary wacky teachings about Jesus and the Bible are merely a restating of his ancient heresies. In his book The God Delusion, Richard Dawkins writes,

 

The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully.

This view is quite similar to that of Marcion and still wreaks havoc in the church today. Tertullian was right that if Christ was not truly human then he could not truly suffer, and if he did not truly suffer, then he cannot be the one who has identified with us as fallen human beings, winning our salvation by his atoning death and life-giving resurrection.

 

 

 

 

 

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