Common Christological Heresies

//Common Christological Heresies

Common Christological Heresies

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Introduction

At the center of Mark, Jesus posed this climatic question to Peter: “Who do you say that I am?” (Mark 8:29). This is a question for every generation — maybe for every believer and nonbeliever. Unlike Peter, however, believers and nonbelievers today can say, without much thought or urgency, time-honored answers: the Christian God, the savior, the promised Messiah, and, even, the God-Man.¹ But without some struggle — intellectual or existential — these titles become dry, clichéd, and powerless. For example, Peter had several faith-doubt episodes prior and after his confession that Jesus is the Messiah. And when we try to answer Jesus’ question — “who do you say that I am?” — remembering the Church’s answers throughout the centuries can aid us to rediscover the alluring beauty and life-altering truth of Jesus.

“Christ Pantocrator” (“Christ, Ruler of All”) by Heather MacKean

“Christ Pantocrator” (“Christ, Ruler of All”) by Heather MacKean

The particular drama I want to retell is how the early Church championed Jesus as the unique God-Man, which came only after centuries of debate and, sadly, exclusion and bloodshed. The first five centuries of the early Church were some of the most tumultuous times: the fall of Jerusalem, violent persecutions, the fall of Rome, and the rise of Christendom. It would be a Herculean task to survey the first five centuries of the early Church in one post. Therefore, I will approach the championing of Jesus as the God-Man through three common Christological (theology relating to Christ) heresies: (1) Arianism, (2) Docetism/Apollinarianism, and (3) Nestorianism. All three of these deal with how to properly address the divinity and humanity of Jesus.

I start with heresies not because they are intellectual problems — not less than that, of course. But because affirming and defending the mystery of Jesus’s divinity and humanity against heresies is first and foremost about worship.² The New Testament churches demonstrated the scandalous truth of attributing divinity to the crucified and risen human Jesus by their worship. Jesus is worthy of worship because he stands at the right hand of God far above — higher than the heavens — the prophets and angels. Christological heresies later came because the early Church had to reconcile the One God of Israel with Jesus Christ, an Israelite man who is worshiped as God.

Worship not only attests the bare fact of Jesus’ divinity in his humanity, but it should also demonstrate the much needed truth that Jesus is Emmanuel — “God with us.” Our worship and our articulated beliefs (theology) should constantly sharpen each other: What I can articulate about Jesus as the unique Savior should form my life, and my life should reaffirm what I profess. Thus, to address heresy is to learn how to worship Jesus properly.

Three Common Heresies

The following three heresies are snapshots of whole movements that encompass groups of people across centuries and a spectrum of theology.³ Our purpose then is not to detail point-by-point what these heresies say, but to give a general impression and its implicit threat to the proper worship of Jesus. It should be noted that these heresies, and others not listed, were first proposed by Christian bishops wanting to defend what they perceived to be orthodoxy. Often times, these intelligent Christian thinkers started with divinity and clashed with the humanity of Jesus. So, in an effort to make better sense of the Christian faith, they would compromise Jesus’ divinity (Arianism), Jesus’ humanity (Docetism/Apollinarianism), or the unity of divinity and humanity in Jesus (Nestorianism).

Arianism: How divine was Jesus?

How much theological weight can one alphabetical letter carry? In the case of Arianism, the weight of orthodoxy. The debate revolved around one iota (the English equivalent of “i”): homoousia vs. homoiousia. They roughly translate from the Greek: “of the same stuff” vs. “of like stuff.”⁴ On the one hand, Arius wanted to defend monotheism and divinity — to keep the One God holy, absolutely unique, and unadulterated by material stuff. On the other hand, he took the humanity of Jesus seriously. So, he compromised. Arius once said that there once was when the Son was not. So, before creation, God the Father created God the Son because before then “the Son was not” yet in existence. In other words, Arius denied the full divinity of Jesus. Arius argued that Jesus is not on the same level as God the Father: that Jesus is homoiousia — of like stuff — with God.⁷

If Jesus is like God, then he is not true or fully God, and anything less than God is not God. Therefore, according to Arianism, Jesus is not God. It follows, then, that Jesus merely models salvation because God did not save in Jesus. Salvation does not flow from Calvary, but its best example is found there.⁸

Athanasius and the Council of Nicea (325 AD) firmly but rightly said “No” to Arianism. Only God can save sinners who cannot save themselves, and such a salvation comes from Jesus. Therefore, Jesus must be homoousia — of same stuff — with God. He cannot be anything less than fully God.

If our worship — what we say and how we live — hints at any salvation apart from God, then our Christology might be compromised. Our salvation is not built on the foundation of our works, good morals, or impressive thoughts. It is built only on the gracious God in Jesus.

Docetism/Apollinarianism: How human was Jesus?

Strictly speaking, Docetism and Apollinarianism are related but not the same heresy.¹⁰ In reaction to Arianism — compromising Jesus’ divinity — and as a follower of Athanasius, Apollinaris, in the fourth century, argued for the full divinity of Jesus but did so by compromising his full humanity. Instead of two fully operating minds — one divine and the other human — Apollinaris suggested that Jesus had only the divine mind. From a human mind comes all forms of evil and deceit; therefore, Jesus should not have a human mind, so said Apollinaris.¹¹ Jesus is, then, like Frankenstein — a mindless body zapped to life.¹²

Docetism is an older heresy that represents a school of thought especially influenced by Gnosticism. In brief, Docetists abhorred the human body: lust, bloodshed, gluttony all originate in the human body. So, in order to protect divinity from such vile filth they also compromised Jesus’ humanity by saying it only “appeared” (doce) that he was human. Jesus is, then, like a phantom.¹³

Both heresies compromise Jesus’ humanity in order to make room for or to keep the divinity pure and holy. But this compromise also twists salvation. If only God can save, then we should also ask what God saves us from. If Jesus’ humanity is missing his mind or his entire body, then does Jesus really save us from corrupted minds and broken bodies?¹⁴ What’s more, can sinners really relate and benefit from a zombie-Jesus or phantom-Jesus?

Gregory of Nazianzen and the Council of Constantinople (381 AD) resolutely proclaimed “No” to Apollinarianism and Docetism. Gregory said that what is not assumed is not healed.¹⁵ In other words, Jesus must be fully human, with a human mind and body.¹⁶ Jesus is the locus of salvation —  minds and bodies find their restoration and new life in him.

If our worship tends to downplay humanity, then our Christology might be compromised. God embraced the fullness of humanity in Jesus: humanity is affirmed. Therefore, our worship should reflect such radical embrace in what we say and how we live. This might include the arts, embodied practices, and bodily care.

Nestorianism: How was Jesus divine and human?

Naturally, the question of the unity between Christ’s full divinity and full humanity rose after the Arian and Docetist/Apollinarian debates. Which has priority? How are the two held together in one person? And when we talk about Jesus, are we referring to God the Son or Jesus the human, or both? For instance, can we say that the immaterial God was physically born of the Virgin Mary?

Nestorius found calling Mary just theotokos (“Mother of God”) problematic. He also wanted to call her anthropotokos (“Mother of human”), but opted to call her simply Christotokos (“Mother of Christ”). This was not well-received nor accurately understood. Cyril of Alexandria thought, for instance, that Nestorius taught a “moral union” between Christ’s divinity and humanity, not a real or substantive one. This then became Nestorianism: separating the fullness of divinity and humanity in Christ’s person. But it is arguable whether Cyril’s assessment was correct and that Nestorius agreed with the core tenants of Nestorianism. This is, sadly, Nestorius’ lamentable fate: he became the spokesperson for a heresy he did not teach.¹⁷

Nevertheless, extreme Nestorianism — separating Christ’s divinity and humanity — is heretical. It dissolves the perfect union between God and human in Jesus that is necessary for our salvation.¹⁸ Sin divorced us from God, but the incarnation reconnected God and us in “the most dramatic way imaginable” — God became flesh.¹⁹ So, was the immaterial God physically born of the Virgin Mary? Did God hunger during Jesus’ fast in the desert? Did God die? Yes to all: God was born in Jesus, God hungered in Jesus, and God died in Jesus. This is different from saying God was born (full stop), God hungered (full stop), and God died (full stop) in abstraction from Jesus. Instead, the most intimate and most mysterious union between God and human in Jesus must be preserved and defended.

If our worship does not communicate the intimate union between God and humanity in and through Jesus, then our Christology might be compromised. Salvation is not an escape from earth — it is union with God through Jesus and by the Holy Spirit. God’s nearness is promised to us in trials and tribulations, pain and suffering, and even at death’s door — for God overcame all in Jesus.

Conclusion

“Who do you say that I am?” is a question of a life-time and for every generation. I do not ask this. Your pastors do not ask this. Professors of theology do not ask this. No, it is Jesus who asks us time and time again. One answer might work for one season, but every new season demands its own answer. Thankfully, the Christian faith has a rich tradition, one with many mistakes and struggles we can learn from.

Here, we covered three common Christological heresies — Arianism, Docetism/Apollinarianism, and Nestorianism — because to address heresies is to learn how to worship Jesus properly. It is not to flaunt our intellectual prowess, but to build up the Church in love — making sure that what they profess matches how they live.

Our worship must reflect that only God saves humanity through union in Jesus. How can the Church today worship and live in such a way that proclaims such glad tidings? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

For Further Reading

(Primary Sources)

(Secondary Sources)

(Advanced Reading)

About The Author

Sooho Lee is currently working on his Master of Divinity at Fuller Theological Seminary. He plans and hopes to pursue a PhD in Systematic Theology, more specifically Christology. Lee is also the curator for www.sooholee.com.

Footnotes

¹ I’m torn: On the one hand, I dislike using “man” or “mankind” as placeholder for humanity; on the other, Jesus was a man. So, for the sake of poetics and brevity (two vs three syllables), I will adopt “God-Man.”
² Indeed, this is the burden of Richard Bauckham’s ground-breaking work on early, high Christology in his Jesus and the God of Israel (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2008).
³ The fine details and complications will be smoothed out for an easier read. For more detailed takes, see “For Further Reads”.
⁴ I have translated ousia, commonly translated “substance,” to a more vernacular “stuff.” It is arguable whether ousia had as much weight as we or even Chalcedon put on when it was first used. Translating ousia as “stuff” also gives us a better picture why Arians wanted to defend divinity from filthy, vile “stuff” of the material world.
⁵ Athanasius paraphrased him in his “Depositions of Arius,” NPNF, 2nd series, vol. 4, p. 70.
⁶ 
“Father” and “Son” language are the tradition titles for the First and Second persons of the Trinity, respectively. For an introduction to gendered language, see our article, “Why is God ‘He’? Views on Gender and God.”
⁷ Michael B. Thompson, “Arianism,” Heresies and How to Avoid Them (Grand Rapids: Baker Academics, 2007), 15-19; Veli-Matti Kärkkäinen, Christology: A Global Introduction, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids: Baker Academics, 2016), 51-52.
⁸ William C. Placher, Jesus the Savior (Louisville: WJPK, 2001), 32-33.
⁹ Salvation and atonement are closely related but not always the same thing. For four popular atonement models, see our article, “How Did Jesus Really Save Us? Exploring the Top Theories of Atonement.
¹⁰ Another related but not the same heresy is Eutychianism. In brief, Eutychianism believes that the divinity and humanity in Jesus mixed into a third thing. It was later condemned at the Council of Chalcedon (451 AD) on account of violating the purity of divinity and introducing a foreign and unrelatable thing in Jesus.
¹¹ For Apollinaris, and his contemporaries, “mind” and “soul” are different things. They do not carry the same baggage as today, where “mind” is much more comprehensive than mere intellect — as neurobiology can attest. To see modern views on the body-soul, see our article on “Solving the Body-Soul Problem”.
¹² I owe this analogy to Oliver D. Crisp in his Divinity and Humanity (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2007).
¹³ John Sweet, “Docetism,” Heresies and How to Avoid Them, 24-28.
¹⁴ Kärkkäinen, Christology, 45-46, 56.
¹⁵  Gregory of Nazianzen, NPNF, 2nd series, vol. 7, p. 440.
¹⁶ This raises the complicated problem of Jesus’ fallen or unfallen, sinless or sinful human nature. Generally, orthodoxy has affirmed that Jesus’ humanity is sinless, but the question of un/fallenness is more ambiguous. It will not be explored here.
¹⁷ Kärkkäinen, Christology, 59-60. Some scholars take a different viewpoint such as A.N. Williams. He does not suggest that Nestorius was possibly misunderstood. He thinks Nestorius taught Nestorianism. A.N. Williams, “Nestorianism,” Heresies and How to Avoid Them, 32-39.
¹⁸ Williams, “Nestorianism,” 38-39.
¹⁹ Placher, Jesus the Savior, 46-47.

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2019-01-21T00:10:48+00:00Essentials|