Saturday, January 30, 2010

A Brief History of some early Christeological Heresies

‘Christeological’ refers to the theology of Christ. As early as the 1st century, numerous heresies arose concerning the identity and nature of Christ. The challenge of answering the heretics forced the church to develop a formalised Christeological theology. The theology they developed is still normative today and has given us a language with which to more easily talk about the second person of the God-head.

The first controversy arose when certain people began denying that Jesus had a material body. This was known as the heresy of Docetism.
Docetism grew out of the heresy of Gnosticism, which taught that Jesus didn’t have a material body. The reason the Gnostics believed that Jesus didn’t have a material body is because they thought that the physical world was bad. Since the physical world is bad they argued that God would never think of taking on flesh. It would be beneath God’s dignity to have a physical body. Thus, they taught that Jesus merely appeared to have a physical human body.

This heresy was around during the time when the New Testament was being written, and it forced some of the New Testament writers to specifically clarify that Jesus had indeed come in the flesh. As the apostle John wrote in his first epistle, “every spirit that does not confess that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is not of God.” (1st John 4:3)

Another significant Christeological controversy occurred in the 4th century when a church leader named Arius (256-336) taught that Jesus wasn’t really God. The Arians believed that only God the Father is divine and that Jesus Christ the Son is actually a created being just like us. Arias was worried that a belief in Jesus’ divinity would mean that there were two separate Gods, thus contradicting the Bible’s teaching about God’s oneness.

To settle the Arian controversy, the Emperor Constantine convened a Council. The Council met in Nicaea, in North-West Asia Minor, in 325 AD.

During the Council of Nicaea, Orthodox Christians from Alexandria debated against the Arians. The Alexandrian or orthodox Christians taught that Jesus is fully human and fully God.

The council also debated another Christeological controversy, known as Origenism. Origen (c. 185 – c. 254) had taught that while Jesus is fully divine, there are grades of divinity and Jesus is less important of a divinity than the Father.

During the Council of Nicaea, the emperor Constantine believed it was his duty to restore unity to the church, and to decide which of these three positions was correct. Among the 300 bishops assembled, many found the debate confusing because the language for discussing these matters had not yet developed. The Arians tried to sway the Origen party over to their side, since some of the language the Arians used seemed to have more in common with Origenism than Alexandrian Christeology. Yet the Origens agreed with the Alexandrians in asserting that Jesus and the Father are both God.

The Arians continued to insist that Jesus was a created being. They promoted their cause by parading around the council chanting ‘Their was a time when he was not, there was a time when he was not.’

Finally the Alexandrian or Orthodox Christians won the debate. Through the help of the young bishop Athanasius, they were able to formulate a confession of faith that the Arians could not affirm. Constantine lent his authority to the creed, which included these significant words:

We believe in one God,
the Father almighty,
Creator of all things visible and invisible;
And in one Lord Jesus Christ,
The Son of God,
Begotten of the Father,
That is, from the essence of the Father,
God from God,
Light from light,
True God from true God,
Begotten, not created, of the same essence as the Father,
Through Whom all things were created
Both in heaven and on earth;
Who for us human beings and for our salvation
Came down and was incarnate,
Was made man,
Suffered and rose again on the third day,
ascended into heaven,
and is coming again to judge the living and the dead;
and in the Holy Spirit.

The most important word in this creed is the Greek word homoousios which means ‘of the same essence.’ It meant that the Son is of the same ‘nature’, ‘substance’ or ‘being’ as the Father. The Arians couldn’t agree to this because it implied that the Son was as eternal as the Father. By their refusal to say this creed, the Arians were pronounced to be heretics.

The Origens agreed to the word homoousios in the creed but afterwards began to have doubts. When the Origens heard the Nicene Christians saying that the Father and the Son were of the same essence, they began to worry that this meant that the Nicenes believed that Jesus and the Father were actually the same person. This was the heresy of Sabellianism.

The Sabellians taught that God wore certain masks, appearing sometimes as the Son, sometimes as the Father, and sometimes as the Holy Spirit. But there was ultimately only one person in the Godhead. Thus when Jesus prayed to His father, He was really praying to himself. Because of the language the Nicenes had adopted to exclude the Arians, the Origen party thought that the Nicenes had embraced the Sabellian heresy. It didn’t help matters that some of them did actually have Sabellian leanings.

The Sabellians had also used the word ousia to mean that the Father and Son were the same person. Because the Origens thought that the Nicenes were heretics, they sometimes sided with the Arians when they were trying to defend orthodoxy, not really understanding the implications of Arians theology.

This is when things began to get really confusing. While the Origens thought that the Nicene Christians were Sabellians, the Nicene Christians thought that the Origens were actually Arians. But the Origens did not believe that the son was formed out of nothing. They believed that Jesus was God, just that He was inferior to the Father. However, in emphasising the Son’s inferiority, it could sound like they were denying His deity like the Arians.

The divisive Arians exploited this confusion by setting the Origens and the Nicenes against each other for 50 years of bitter controversy. The most bitter part of this controversy revolved around a single letter in the creed. The Origen party preferred to say that the Son was homoiousios with the Father instead of homoousios.

Homoi ousios = Same essence
Homo ousios = Similar Essence

Note that the differences between these words are only one letter – the letter i. The dispute over this one letter was serious and threatened to divide the church. These problems would have lingered on to the detriment of church unity had not the Lord raised up Athanasius to come to the rescue. Athanasius had been one of the younger members of the Council of Nicaea, as assistant to the bishop of Alexandria. Later in the 4th century Athanasius became Bishop of Alexandria himself.

Athanasius became convinced that the Nicenes and the Origens were actually fighting the same battle against the Arians and that they should join forces. By working together Athanasius believed that the two parties could defeat the real heretics. Athanasius said, “Those who accept the Nicene Creed but have doubts about the word homoousios, must not be treated as enemies. We will discuss the matter with them as brothers with brothers.” From that moment forward, the Nicenes and the Origens united together to defend orthodoxy against the true heretics.

During the 4th century an adequate language was finally developed to clarify matters further between the Nicenes and the Origens. Always before, the two Greek words hypostasis and ousia had meant much the same thing. But this created confusion. When the Nicenes had said that the Father and Son had one divine nature, they expressed it by saying that the Father and Son have one hypostasis and one ousia. However, when the Origenists said that Father and Son were two distinct persons, they used exactly the same words, and said that father and Son were two hypostases and two ousiai.

To remove this confusion, some church fathers known as the Cappadocians, suggested that the word ousia should from now on refer specifically to the one divine nature that Father and Son share in common, while the word hypostasis should refer to the two distinct persons of Father and Son. The Cappadocians created the following formula: God is three hypostases in one ousia. In English we still use this formula by saying that God is three persons existing eternally in one single nature.

The Cappadocians also helped to clarify that the Holy Spirit is also God.

The Cappadocian formula for the trinity allowed the Nicenes and the Origenists to finally agree on the appropriate language with which to talk about Jesus. The Origenists then gave up saying that the Son was inferior to the Father. Thus it was that the Origens and the Nicenes were able to present an offensive front to the continued challenge of Arianism. They did this at the Council of Constantinople by redrafting an expanded version of the Nicene Creed which made the doctrine of the Trinity more explicit and fleshed out Christeological theology. That creed is still used in many churches today.
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