Sanctify Them Through Thy Truth (5): The Christological Debates

In 2 Corinthians 11, Paul expresses his care for the believers to whom he was writing, and his urgent awareness of the error that they were about to face. Assuring them that he was jealous over them “with a godly jealousy” (v 2) he accurately highlights the nature of that attack: “For if he that cometh preacheth another Jesus, whom we have not preached, or if ye receive another spirit, which ye have not received, or another gospel, which ye have not accepted, ye might well bear with him” (v4).

The English translation tends to obscure the vitally important point the apostle is making. “Another Christ” is allos (another of the same sort) but “another gospel” and “another spirit” are heteros (others of a different sort). There can be no minor differences in doctrine relating to the person of Christ. No matter how similar to the Scriptural standard another Christ may seem, if he is not the Christ of the Bible, both the gospel that presents him and the spirit behind that gospel are far different from the truth of Holy Scripture inspired by the Holy Spirit.

Paul’s warning had a clear and urgent relevance for the Corinthian believers. In the next two centuries, its relevance for every church and for every believer would become all too clear. The christological truth that is at the very heart of Christianity was to become the subject of serious and sustained attacks.

It would be more accurate to say that Biblical Christology came under attacks, for heresy and the hetero spirit that inspired it launched a pincer movement, attacking Biblical doctrine on two fronts. One arm of the assault attacked the deity of Christ, another His true humanity. Between these two errors, both equally pernicious, equally heterodox, the early believers had to navigate as they strove to remain true to God and to His Word.

Teaching that denied the true deity of Christ was nothing new. Throughout His ministry, the Jewish authorities’ most vociferous opposition was aroused when He spoke of Himself as the Son of God. “He makes Himself equal with God” (John 5:18) was their recurring complaint. Calvary only added to their opposition. Bad enough that an itinerant teacher should claim equality with God; still worse that such a claim should be made for a man whose execution was calculated to express the deepest opprobrium of the Jewish and the gentile worlds, and of heaven itself.

As the apostles faithfully preached the Christ they had known, they too encountered opposition from those who were willing, perhaps, to admit that Jesus of Nazareth made some good points, but would not acknowledge that He was Who He claimed to be – the eternal Son of the eternal God. This view found two expressions early in the church age. One arose from Jewish Christianity. This was the heresy of the Ebionites. Members of this sect denied the eternity, the deity, and the sonship of Christ. As though almost anticipating the heretical teaching of many false religious teachers in our own day, they argued that Jesus was an outstandingly righteous man, chosen by God to be a special prophet, chosen to be the Messiah, but nonetheless a created being, and not truly God. A similar view was expressed by those who are known as Arians, followers of an Egyptian named Arius. Arian teachers had a higher view of Christ than the Ebionites. They acknowledged Him as the Son of God, but denied His eternal existence and His equality with the Father. It has been said that their teaching came within an iota of being Scriptural. They taught that Christ was homoioúsios – of a similar substance to God – not that He was homooúsios – of the same substance as God. Theirs was truly an allos-Christ, and, for some, such differences may well have seemed like trifling details. But much hung upon that one letter, and for all the similarity of the Christ they presented, their teaching was heretical and represented a serious affront to the truth of God’s Word.

While heresy of this sort presented another Christ who was less than divine, other teachers presented a Christ who was less than fully human.These doctrines were primarily Greek in their origins.

The idea that matter was inherently evil was deeply embedded in Greek philosophy. Had that notion remained in the sphere of philosophy it might, however mistaken, not have done a very great deal of damage. Imported into Christianity, though, its impact was alarming. And, as the prevailing philosophies of the society in which we live have the power to influence us far more than we imagine, it was inevitable that this idea would have just such an impact.

To those who had been influenced by Greek philosophy, the idea of incarnation – that a transcendent God would really become man – was unthinkable. Surely, they reasoned, God would not soil Himself by association with matter. On this assumption were built two strands of gnostic heresy. One, called doceticism, from the Greek word meaning “to seem,” suggested that Christ’s human form was an illusion – that His body did not have any real physical being. The other strand, termed monarchianism or adoptionism, taught that a man named Jesus was taken over and controlled by the divine essence at His baptism. A later development of this sort of teaching was monophysitism, meaning one nature, which taught that the incarnate Christ had only a divine, and not a human nature. Each of these teachings, and others closely relating to them, had the ultimate effect of denying the reality of the incarnation, and undermining the teaching of Scripture concerning the genuine and actual humanity of the One Who was “manifest in flesh” (2Tim 3:16).

Whether these hetereo teachers presented another Christ who was less than divine or less than human, they represented an assault on the very heart of Christianity. As their teaching gained popularity, the foundation of the gospel – the preaching of Christ crucified – was coming under attack. This serious attack had to be repelled, and the only thing that could repel it was the truth of God’s Word. And it was to that irresistible force that God’s people turned.

Controversy about the nature of Christ, and especially about the Arian heresy, raged throughout the Roman Empire in the opening decades of the fourth century. This controversy threatened the peace of the empire and so the emperor, Constantine, called an international council of church leaders. Some 300 bishops gathered in Nicaea (current day Iznik, Turkey), in the year 325. They did not gather to invent Christianity’s teaching about the Lord Jesus Christ. Rather, they came to compare the Christology of different groups to the truth of Scripture and the teaching of the apostles. Arius himself attended with 22 supporting bishops. But as passages from his writings were read, the supporters quickly deserted him, and the statement that resulted from the Council was all but unanimous. That statement has been passed down to us as the Nicene Creed. It summarizes the teaching of Scripture regarding the unity of God, the person and work of Christ and the Holy Spirit. It repudiates the stunted Christology of the Arians, and represents the triumph of the truth of God’s Word over the preachers of “another gospel.”

That triumph was neither final nor total. While the denial of Christ’s deity and the threat posed by Arian heresy had been dealt with at Nicaea, the churches continued to be troubled by denials of Christ’s true humanity, especially by the Monophysite heresy, which suggested that the Lord Jesus had only a divine, not a human, nature. In response to the continuing propagation of this view, church leaders gathered in Chalcedon (now a district of Istanbul, Turkey), in the year 451. There they produced a further statement of faith which affirmed what we know as the hypostatic union of the divine and human in the incarnate Christ. The creed produced by the Council, affirmed belief in “our Lord Jesus Christ, the same perfect in Godhead and also perfect in manhood; truly God and truly man, of a reasonable [rational] soul and body; consubstantial with the Father according to the Godhead, and consubstantial with us according to the manhood; in all things like unto us, without sin.”

It is important to understand that the council of Chalcedon was not inventing an orthodox Christology. Nor did their approval make the Christology embodied in the creed orthodox. Rather, they were addressing the challenge of doctrinal innovation by returning to the truth of God’s Word. And, while we look to Scripture and not to any human formulation as the basis of our faith, we do well to take note of the truth stated and defended at Chalcedon. Heresy in our day has not ceased to repackage the erroneous teachings and other gospels of past centuries. We do well to heed the warning of the apostle and the instruction of history and to hold fast to “the simplicity that is in Christ” (2Cor 11:3).