Lesson 4: Controversies and Creeds: The Apostolic Age to Arianism

"Who do you say that I am?"

I. Brief Introduction

From the New Testament forward, there exists a desire on the part of the Church, as the bride of Christ, to express to herself and to the world more and more adequately who Christ is.

Various divergent doctrines on Christ's identity arose. Need for the Church, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, to sort out which were accurate, authentic and which were not so and why. This is already seen in the Letters of St. John in which he says that anyone who denies that Jesus Christ came in the flesh is an antichrist.

These errors, then, served a useful purpose. They pushed the Church in her meditation and thinking on Christ to ever deeper, richer penetration in her understanding; to ever more refined ways of expressing to herself and others the mystery of the treasure hidden in Jesus.

Use of Greek philosophical terms only to assist her to manifest better or point to Jesus, the God-man. This was actually consciously intended and stated by the Council Fathers at the Council of Nicaea (325), for example.

Difference between being in error and heresy (from a Greek word meaning "to choose-out"). The advancing of a heresy means really electing-out certain aspects of the faith to the exclusion of or distortion of others and holding to one's position tenaciously, even in the face of entreaties, etc., from the Church. To be a heretic is hard work!

II. The Major Christological Heresies and the Orthodox Responses

A. Jesus not really human

      1. Gnosticism (Docetism, Manicheanism) (First century)

These heresies all share in common that Jesus Christ was not fully human. The Eternal God appears (Docetism comes from the Greek docere meaning to appear, to seem) to be in a human body. This view of Christ has two main sources. First, advocates of this view would refer to passages in the New Testament that could suggest Jesus only seemed human if interpreted in a strictly literal fashion: John 4:34, "My food is to do the will of him who sent me," and Phil 2:7, ". . . [Christ Jesus was] born in the likeness of men." Second, it is rooted in dualism or the doctrine of two principles of all things: one is good; the other evil. Material creation usually stems from an assault of the evil principle against the good with the result that matter is evil and goodness is trying to escape matter and return to the spirit. Hence, a true in-carne-tion (carne being the Greek work for material flesh) is utterly unfitting for the Good God. This same dualistic worldview arises in the Middle Ages in the Cathars and the Albigensians.

Catholic Response:

Christ is the Eternal Son come in a true human body and soul. St. Ignatius of Antioch (d. 107) insisted on the reports of Christ's earthly life as aleithos, that is, as truly narrating the acts of the Messiah in the flesh. St. Irenaeus, in the second century, is a great defender of the faith against Gnosticism. He connects the reality of the fleshly human nature of Christ to the real presence of the flesh of Christ in the Eucharist. He accepts both as belonging to the faith and therefore affirms that matter must be good since Christ assumed matter in his incarnation and continues to be materially present in the Eucharist. See the following passages.

Luke 24:39, "See my hands and my feet, that it is I myself; handle me, and see; for a spirit has not flesh and bones as you see that I have. And when he had said this he showed them his hands and his feet. And while they still disbelieved for joy, and wondered, he said to them, 'Have you anything here to eat?' They gave him a piece of broiled fish, and he took it and ate before them."

John 6:53-56, "Unless you eat my flesh and drink my blood."

II Peter 1:16, "It was not by way of cleverly concocted myths that we taught you about the coming in power of our lord Jesus Christ, for we were eye-witnesses of His sovereign majesty."

      2. Valentinianism (early 2nd century)

Similar to the gnostic or docetic Christ, here Christ lacks a fully human body. Instead, the Son takes on a heavenly body. The Son has not assumed our human flesh, but a heavenly prototype. Although there is a heavenly body, there is no soul.

Supporting passages:

I Cor 15:47, "The first man was of the earth, formed from dust, the second is from heaven."
John 3:13, "No one has ascended into heaven but he who descended from heaven, the Son of man."

Similar Catholic response as to Gnosticism.

B. Jesus not really God, the Eternal Son

      1. Ebionism

A Jewish view that accepted Christ as the Messiah, but as an exalted human being along the lines of the Old Testament prophets and kings.

      2. Sabellianism (Modalism)

There are not three distinct divine persons, but three modes in which God reveals himself to man -- first, as Father; second, as Son; and third, as Holy Spirit. The word for person, prosopon, originally was used for the mask worn by actors in the theatre. No real Trinity, just three masks of the One God. So for Christ, God the Father becomes the Son as he becomes a man. Many criticized this view as implying that the Father suffered on the Cross -- paterpassionists. Referred to passages such as John 14:9-10, "He who has seen me has seen the Father. . . . Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father in me."

Catholic Response:

There are three distinct persons and the second person was incarnate in Christ. The Catholics insist upon the oneness and the threeness of God: one essence / nature (substantia) and three persons (personas). St. Clement of Alexandria (d. 220) uses the Greek word, trias, meaning triad. Tertullian, Cyprian and others use the Latin trinitas meaning the same. God the Son becomes a man without ceasing to be God. Here we see the development of the central insight to Trinitarian theology and Christology. In the Trinity, there is one nature and three persons. In Christ, there are two natures, divine and human, and one person. Passages such as John 1:1,14 indicate that the Word and the Father are distinct and only the Word became incarnate, "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. . . . And the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us."

      3. Adoptionism

This heresy has roots in the Old Testament adoption of kings as sons of God (see 2 Sam 7, Ps 2) and the truth in the New Testament that all who receive Jesus can become children of God (John 1:12, Gal 4:4-6). Jesus merits divine adoption because of his great worthiness. As we are adopted sons of God by grace, Jesus is also the adopted Son of God by grace. He is not the Son of God by nature. The great biblical scene supporting this view is the Baptism of Jesus in which God declares, "This is my son", after Jesus has passed through the testing in the wilderness. A more developed and sophisticated form of the first century Ebionites. Referred to passages such as Mt 28:18, "All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me," and Acts 2:32, "This Jesus God raised up, and of that we are all witnesses." This view has especially resurfaced in modern theology and contemporary biblical scholarship.

Catholic Response:

Christ is truly divine. The Logos is preexistent as John 1:1,14 show. Philippians 2:6 also shows this preexistence since it says that he was in the "form of God" (morphe theou). Also, John 8:58, ". . . before Abraham was, I AM."

Reading Assignment

Roch Kereszty, O. Cist., Jesus Christ: Fundamentals of Christology, 156-190 (Part II Historical Christology, Intro, Ch.1, Ch.2 (first part))
CCC 461-465

Writing Assignment

Write a two-page essay in which you summarize briefly the early Christological heresies discussed in this lesson. Be sure to analyze the two divergent trends of denying the humanity or the divinity of Christ. What is the orthodox response.

Suggested Reading

William C. Rusch, The Trinitarian Controversy (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1980).


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