The Three Christological Heresies
by Fred Grigg
Perhaps life's most crucial question to ask anyone is -- "WHAT THINK YE OF CHRIST?" (Matthew 22:42). As a matter of historical record, the full statement concerning the person of Christ was arrived at only after protracted and violent controversies. During this time, every possible interpretation of the biblical data was examined, its elements of truth sifted out and preserved, while the elements of error which deformed it were exposed and discarded.
Before one can correctly understand the nature of Christ, he must first understand the nature of the Godhead. I will attempt to define "God" according to three main views of understanding:
MODALISM emphasizes the UNITY of God to the destruction of the TRINITY of God and thus results in UNITARIANISM.
TRINITARIANISM (Triunity) emphasizes the biblical view that God is ONE, PERSONAL and TRIUNE.
TRITHEISM states the TRINITY OF GOD to the destruction of the UNITY of God thus resulting in THREE GODS (polytheism).
As stated previously, the word "heresy" is derived from the Greek word "hairetikos", which means "choice." It later came to mean -- the part of school of a man's choice. In the New Testament, the term is used for the parties of the Pharisees and the Sadducees, plus the part of the Nazarenes (Acts 5:17, 24:5, 26:5, 28:22). Before the end of the New Testament, the word begins to take on its distinctively Christian sense, i.e., "a line of thought or practice which deviated from the mainstream of Christianity."
Historically, the first great question that came up in the early church had to do with the Person of Christ. This even took the forefront over the work of Christ because who He was would greatly interpret what He did. As previously noted, most early heresies therefore based their beliefs on the assumption that Christ must be either divine or human, but not both. Because these two natures in Christ seemed to be mutually exclusive, they either held to one while rejecting or diminishing the other, or vice versa. For that reason, all early heresies either ended up under-evaluating Christ's divinity, His human nature, or both.
The origin of these early heresies must be seen in the context of the current philosophies and religious views into which Christ was born. It was during the second and third centuries that the influence of STOIC and PLATONIC thought caused some to deny the full deity of Christ. For that reason, for the first three centuries in the Christian era, religious discussion centered almost entirely on the relationship between the Father and the Son, almost to the complete neglect of the Holy Spirit. As one theologian said, "The doctrine of the two natures united in one person is the key to understanding the Biblical Christ. The alternatives which we are to encounter face-to-face are: either, the two-natured Christ in history, or a strong delusion." (Christology and Criticism, Dr. Benjamin B. Warfield, p. 309).
However, we must be honest and quick to state that throughout our study of the two natures of Christ, as with the study of the Trinity, we are faced with an impenetrable mystery. It is one of the mysteries which the scriptures reveal but which they make no effort to explain. Christ is absolutely the unique Person of history. As St. Augustine once said concerning the doctrine of the Trinity, "Spend your life trying to understand it, and you will lose your mind; but deny it and you will lose your soul."
There are three major heresies regarding the Lord Jesus Christ:
(1) The denial of Christ's Divinity -- which lead to the heresies known as Ebonism, Arianism (Jehovah's Witnesses), Nestorianism, Socinianism, Liberalism, Humanism, Unitarianism.
(2) The denial of Christ's two natures -- which created heretical groups such as Monophysitism, Eutychianism, Monothelitism. These all confuse the two natures of Christ; i.e., absorbed one of His natures into the other.
(3) The denial of Christ's humanity -- which gave rise to Docetism, Marcionism, Gnosticism, Apollinarianism, Monarchianism, Patripassianism, Sabellianism, Adoptionism, Dynamic Monarchianism.
All of these heresies in some way ended up by "dividing" the theanthropic (God-Man) Jesus Christ!
The great biblical scholar and theologian, Dr. Benjamin B. Warfield, summarized the rising and falling of these various early heresies as follows: "To the onlooker from this distance of time, the main line of progress of the debate takes on an odd appearance of a steady zig-zag advance. Arising out of the embers of the Arian controversy, there is first vigorously asserted, over against the reduction of our Lord to the dimensions of a creature, the pure Deity of His spiritual nature (Apollinarianism).
By this there is at once provoked, in the interests of the integrity of our Lord's humanity, the equally vigorous assertion of the completeness of His human nature as the bearer of His Deity (Nestorianism). This in turn provokes, in the interest of the oneness of His person, and equally vigorous assertion of the conjunction of these two natures in a single individual (Eutychianism); from all of which there gradually emerges at last, by a series of corrections, the balanced statement of Chalcedon, recognizing at once in its "without confusion, without Deity conversion, eternally and inseparably", the union in the person of Christ of a complete Deity and a complete humanity constituting a single person without prejudice to the continued integrity of either nature.
The pendulum of though had swung back and forth in ever-decreasing arcs until at last it found rest along the line of action of the fundamental force. Out of the continuous controversy of a century, there issued a balanced statement in which all the elements of the Biblical representation were taken up and combined. Work so done is done for all time; and it is capable of ever-repeated demonstration that in the developed doctrine of the two natures and in it alone, all the Biblical data are brought together in a harmonious statement in which each receives full recognition, and out of which each may derive its sympathetic exposition.
This key unlocks the treasures of the Biblical instruction on the person of Christ as none other can, and enables the reader as he currently scans the sacred pages to take up their declarations as they meet him, one after the other, into an intelligently consistent conception of his Lord. (Christology and Criticism, p. 264).
Condemning the Heresies:
Council of Nicaea (AD 324) -- was called by Constantine to consider and, if possible, settle the ARIAN heresy. It gave the church the first great ecumenical creed.
First Council of Constantinople (AD 381) -- called by Emperor Theodosius the Great to correct errors of APOLLINARIANISM and MACEDONIANISM.
The Council of Ephesus (AD 431) -- was presided over by Cyril, Bishop of Alexandria, and was called to deal with NESTORIANISM.
The Council of Chalcedon (AD 451) -- three bishops and two presbyters presided. They were representatives of Leo of Rome. The Council condemned EUTYCHIANISM, and gave the church the creedal statement on Christology which has stood the test of the centuries. The Chalcedonian statement has largely become the orthodox creed or Protestantism.
Second Council of Constantinople (AD 680) -- was called by the Emperor Constantine Pogonatus, and was directed against MONOTHELITISM.
Frankford Synod (AD 794) -- was called by Charlemagne and at it, ADOPTIONISM was condemned.
One can easily see, then, from these ancient and contemporary heresies mentioned above, just how Satan has constantly tried to hide and corrupt the true theanthropic nature of Christ. If either nature is "corrupted", salvation is destroyed!