[Some of] The Christological Heresies

I’ve put together a snapshot of many of the Christological heresies that the Christian Church had to contend with in the first several centuries of its existence. Altough other heresies are not mentioned (e.g., Sabellianism, Montanism), this matrix captures errant beliefs on the person and nature of Jesus Christ and the orthodox responses. If you prefer, you may download a PDF of this content.

Century/Error Denial Orthodox Response
(1st century) Docetism Christ’s genuine humanity. From the Greek, dokein = “to seem”. Jesus ‘seemed’ to be human. Material world is intrinsically evil. At his baptism the Spirit of Christ descended upon the illusionary human Jesus; at his crucifixion the Spirit of Christ departed. Jesus did not suffer human frailties, since he was not fully human; he was not crucified but had another (Simon the Cyrene) stand in his place at Golgotha. Cerinthus, a contemporary of John the Apostle, championed a docetic Jesus. No official condemnation. Ignatius of Antioch (c. 35-107 CE) was a critic. According to Irenaeus (130-202 CE), Basilides­ used a literary device whereby a hero’s “double” provides a substitute to depict a docetic Jesus. He claimed Jesus exchanged forms with Simon en route to Golgotha and then stood by to mock those who crucified his “double” (McGrath, Heresy, pp 115-116).
Century/Error Denial Orthodox Response
(2nd century) Marcionism Christ’s genuine humanity. Material world is intrinsically evil. As a docetist, Marcion (85-160 CE) denied Jesus’ Jewish lineage and Christianity’s Jewish heritage. He argued the Jewish God is not the Christian God. Since Jewish Christians contaminated the New Testament, Marcion produced his own authorized version by including only 10 of Paul’s letters and Luke (both of which he redacted). Marcion voluntarily left the church at Rome. No official condemnation. Justin Martyr (100-165 CE), Irenaeus (130-202 CE), and Tertullian (160-220 CE) were critics. Downplaying the historical side of Jesus was to deny his full humanity. The Church acknowledged continuity between the two covenants and came to see Christ as the fulfillment of God’s redemptive program.
Century/Error Denial Orthodox Response
(2nd century) Ebionism Christ’s genuine deity. As Jewish Christians they rejected the virgin birth; Jesus was a man normally born of Joseph and Mary, but was characterized as a great Hebrew prophet, such as Elijah. Modern “Ebionites” are those who say Jesus was just a good man, good teacher, prophet, or holy man. No official condemnation. Irenaeus (130-202 CE) and Hippolytus of Rome (170-236 CE) were critics. Tensions between Jewish and Gentile Christians (cf. Acts 15) continued well into the 2nd century.
Century/Error Denial Orthodox Response
(2nd century) Valentinism/
Gnosticism
Christ’s genuine humanity. Material world is intrinsically evil. The immaterial (spiritual) world is more valued. Valentinus (100-160 CE) taught the Christ of Jesus was sent to awaken within humanity a “divine spark,” setting it free from enslavement to the body. A deeper knowledge (Greek “gnosis”) and more spiritual version of Christianity can be achieved by giving Gnostic meanings to Christian texts. One of the first influential Gnostics to teach in Rome, Valentinus was a committed docetist. No official condemnation. Justin Martyr (100-165 CE), Irenaeus (130-202 CE), and Tertullian (160-220 CE) were critics. Incarnation and sacraments give evidence the material world is not evil (see also 1, 2, 3 John). Arguing against doctrinal innovations, Irenaeus championed a solid and responsible reading of the Scripture with the Apostolic tradition as a governing standard.
Century/Error Denial Orthodox Response
(4th century) Arianism Christ’s genuine deity. Arius believed that Jesus Christ was a demi-god and therefore a created being. The argument focused on two Greek terms: homoousias, the Son is of the same essence as the Father (the orthodox position argued by Athanasius (296-373 CE) and homoiousias, the Son is of similar essence as the Father (Arius’ position). Council of Nicea (325 CE). The Nicene Creed uses the word “homoousias” to say Jesus is “consubstantial with the Father.” The chief task of Nicaea was in refuting Arianism by declaring that Jesus Christ is one in being or essence with the Father. This is the heart of orthodox Christology.
Century/Error Denial Orthodox Response
(4th century) Apollinarianism Christ’s genuine humanity. The Logos (the perfect divine nature) assumed a human body in Jesus, thus replacing his human soul and mind. Jesus’ body, therefore, was a spiritualized form of humanity. Apollinaris, the Bishop of Laodicea (d. 390 CE), proposed this idea in opposition to Arius. Councils of Antioch (378-9 CE) and Constantinople (381 CE). If the divine Logos took the place of Jesus’ human mind, he was not completely human. Constantinople settled dogma on two fronts: condemning Apollinarianism and affirming the divinity of the Holy Spirit as the third person of the Trinity.
Century/Error Denial Orthodox Response
(5th century) Eutychianism Christ’s genuine humanity and deity. Christ’s humanity was totally absorbed by his divinity such that the distinction of each nature (human and divine) was lost (aka “monophysitism” = “one nature”). Christ was a tertium quid, so to speak (a third kind of thing, neither fully human nor fully divine). Council of Chalcedon (451 CE). Although Eutyches (378-456 CE) vehemently opposed Nestorianism at the Council of Ephesus (431 CE), he was deemed a heretic with his extreme views of Christ’s human and divine natures.
Century/Error Denial Orthodox Response
(5th century) Nestorianism Union of one Person in Jesus. As a composite being Jesus was two persons, one human and the other divine. Both the divine and the human natures of Christ each had their own hypostasis (the underlying substance that is the fundamental reality of a thing/person). And, since the divine and human natures are fundamentally different realities, then there were two separate hypostases or persons. The union of the two natures did not occur in the one person of Jesus, but the union was of two persons appearing as one in Jesus. (Note: Historical theologians are divided over Nestorius’ beliefs and if he was dealt a fair hand. His arguments were nuanced and his theological terms imprecise. In part, the issue revolves around whether or not a person has only one nature or if a person possesses more than one nature. See http://goo.gl/CGXQxp and especially http://amzn.com/1620321807.) The Council of Ephesus (431 CE) declared that Christ is one person, not two. This was the first ecumenical gathering that made dogmatic statements about Mary, declaring her to be the Theotokos, or Mother of God. The Council also repudiated Pelagianism (denies original sin and the need for God’s grace in salvation). Augustine vehemently opposed Pelagius. After Constantinople (381 CE) and Ephesus (431 CE), some Christians held on to various false views of Jesus. In response, the Church held another council known as Chalcedon (451 CE) to clarify its earlier teaching and declare that Christ was one person with two natures.*

*It is historically significant that Chalcedon did not have the last word on Christology. The language of Chalcedon spawned new debates and eventually provided the conceptual framework for John of Damascus, centuries later (circa 675 – circa 749 CE), to articulate how variety and unity can characterize the same divine reality. He helpfully employs the expression perichoresis (literally “dance around”) to illustrate how things brought together in union could nevertheless remain distinct, as in partners “dancing around” together. Rather than being mingled together as in a container of barley and wheat, or being fused together as in a drop of wine in a glass of water, each nature mutually indwells the other while preserving its own distinct properties. Perichoresis or “interpenetration” is that summary expression used by John of Damascus to show how the two distinct natures of the one Person ‘dance’ in concert while simultaneously “acting conjointly, with each nature doing in communion with the other that which is proper to itself.” All Christians can confidently affirm with Chalcedon that our Lord Jesus Christ is …

“at once complete in Godhead and complete in manhood … of one substance [homoousious] with the Father … and at the same time of one substance [homoousious] with us as regards his manhood …without confusion, without change, without division, without separation; the distinction of natures being in no way annulled by the union, but rather the characteristics of each nature being preserved and coming together to form one person [prosopon] and subsistence [hypostasis], not as parted or separated into two persons [prosopa], but one and the same Son and Only-begotten God the Word, Lord Jesus Christ.”


See also my The Christology of Chalcedon.

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