Everything you every wanted to know about Christological heresies but were afraid to ask
I’ll start off with a disclaimer. This disclaimer is entirely directed towards my comrade D.C. for reasons that will become clear as I proceed… This posting does not claim to be proof of the Trinity or of the divinity/humanity of Christ. Instead, this post assumes these things. No, the purpose of this post is to present in the clearest possible fashion that I have found the orthodox classical doctrines of the Trinity and of the divinity/humanity of Christ as expressed in the teachings of the Church Fathers. This post will proceed as if the doctrines of the Church as codified in the three received creeds—the Apostles’, the Nicene, and the Athanasian—accurately state the inner relations of the Godhead, a stance that I believe without reservations. For more info, I commend to you St Augustine’s De Trinitate and St Vincent of Lerin’s Commonitory on the Trinity and St Athanasius’s On the Incarnation and St Leo the Great’s Tome on the humanity/divinity of Christ. Here endeth the disclaimer.
II. Wherein Derek Learns Math Can Be Fun
I never was a terribly good math student in my primary and secondary education. Though a computer programmer from my youth, I never liked the math I encountered in school: it was boring. It was too cut and dried; there was only one answer to each question with no wiggle room.
The moment that almost redeemed math for me was during a calculus class my senior year of high school. It was towards the end of the year, and the teacher challenged the class to draw a triangle with three right angles. Now—we all knew this was impossible. A right angle (reach back y’all) is 90 degrees. A triangle is a three-pointed shape whose angles add up to 180 degrees. So, only two right angles would add up to 180 leaving no degrees for the third giving you—basically—a line. If you can’t even do two right angles there’s no way you can do three.
And then she pulled out a ball. Taking a piece of chalk she made a right angle at the “north pole” of the ball, then drew lines down to its equator and made right angles there as well, connecting them up into a shape that looked a lot like one half of a big orange wedge. Sure enough—a triangle with three right angles. She then explained to us what the quicker students had already figured out; we had been stuck in the rules of Euclidean geometry—geometry done on flat surfaces or planes. The rules all changed when you started doing geometry on other kinds of surfaces—particularly curved ones. I’d love to say that this little episode turned around my whole perspective towards math and changed my life, etc. It didn’t—I still ended the year with a C. It did give me one enduring lesson about math, though: If a math problem doesn’t “work” you’ve got two options. Either change the equation—or change the rules.
Let me give you an example. This equation: 9+8 = 11 simply doesn’t “work”. If you wanted it to work, you’ve got two options: 1) you can fix the equation: 9+2=11 or maybe 9+8=17, or 2) you can change the rules: we’re using Base 16 rather than Base 10 (and thus 9+8=(16)+1).
III. Wherein Derek Learns the Trinity Can Be Fun
Enough math–let’s get to the Trinity. The early Church found itself with a bit of a dilemma. As good Jews (or Jewish-leaning Gentile God-fearers) they knew that God was God. So far so good. However, they also believed that Jesus Christ the Risen Lord was also, in some way, God (Cf. John 1, Col 2:9, etc.). Furthermore, they were moved—sometimes physically it seems—by the power of the Holy Spirit and were compelled to regard the Spirit as God as well As firm believers in the accuracy of the OT, they believed along with Deut 6:4 that God is one. Tied up with the whole question of who Jesus was, they also came to the conviction that Jesus was entirely human—and entirely God at the same time. Let’s reduce these to two equations: The Godhead Equation and the Jesus Equation.
Here’s the Godhead Equation: 1 (the Father)+ 1 (the Son) + 1 (the Spirit) = 1 (God).
Now here’s the Jesus Equation: 100% (human) + 100% (divine) = 100% (Jesus)
I think you can see the problem . . . none of these equations “work”. Something has to be tinkered with. The Church argued for several centuries about exactly what it was that needed to change for everything to come out right. In the end, the group that emerged as the Great Church which split into the Roman Catholic and the Eastern Orthodox traditions came to the conclusion that the equations should not be tinkered with. Something did have to change—but it was the rules, not the equation. The Church believes not that God is above or beyond rules but that there is a different logic, a set of rules not human nor entirely comprehensible by humans whereby the equations really do make sense. (I can just see D.C. shaking his head at this point… 😉 —bear with me!)
Virtually all of the beliefs identified by the Church as heresies tried to make these equations “work” by fixing the equation rather than realizing that the rules needed to change. As a result, they can be most easily understood by modeling the ways that they tried to “fix” things up.
IV. Different “Fixes” People Have Gotten Into
The point of this following list is to show you some of the possibilities that have popped up historically. The names are less important (unless you have to take church history exams); it’s more important to recognize what the problems are. The bottom line here isn’t that some people are heretics, it’s that orthodox theology maintains a God who cares—and a God who knows your private pain precisely because divinity has taken on humanity and has thereby exalted humanity. The fullness of this miracle—and the revelation of God’s amazing love for his people—is diminished by these various notions.
We’ll start with the biggies on the Godhead side first.
1 (the Father) + 0 (the Son) + 0 (the Spirit) = 1 (God): held by Arians, Photinians, Ebionites
One of the most enduring of all the heresies, this is the one that believes that Jesus was a really great guy but just wasn’t God.
Arius posited that Jesus and the Spirit were the very first of God’s creations but they were, in fact, creatures and therefore ontologically different from God.
From a Christian perspective, this is where the other two Abrahamic religions—Judaism and Islam—go wrong. Naturally, Unitarians fall under this category as well.
1 (the Father) + 1 (the Son) + 1 (the Spirit) = 3 (three gods): held by Tritheists, Christian polytheists
This is a heresy that many Christians accidentally slip into. In a way, it seems the most innocuous; there doesn’t seem to be much difference between one Godhead with three interrelated persons and three different gods—and yet . . .
1 (the Father) then 1 (the Son) then 1 (the Spirit) = 1 (God): held by Modalists, Montanists, Patripassianists, Franciscan Enthusiasts
This heresy believes that God is one but simply acts in different ways at different times. That is, God started out being the Creator, then stopped being the Creator and was the Son, then stopped being the Son (and Creator) and became the Spirit. Several variants of this exist. In a manner of speaking, the Montanists come pretty close to this in that they believed that God “did” revelation to Moses, then Jesus “did” revelation in an incarnate form, then the Holy Spirit “did” revelation by incarnating himself as Montanus. The Patripassians who believe that the Father suffered on the cross are—I believe—a variant of this too. The infamous Franciscan Enthusiasm problem that divided history into the Age of the Father, the Age of the Son (heralded by Jesus) and the Age of the Spirit (heralded by St Francis) also broadly fits under this category.
1 (the Father) + 1 (the Son) + 0 (the Spirit) = 1 (God): held by Macedonians (followers of Macedonius, not people who live north of Greece)
This one’s a half-measure that doesn’t really make the equation “right”—it just attempts to make it a little less wrong-looking.
That wraps up the main Godhead Equation problems, now we’ll turn to the Jesus Equation problems. We lead of with a reprise; once again it’s . . .
100% (human) + 0% (divine) = 100% (Jesus): held by Arians, Ebionites, well…most everybody who subscribes to 1+0+0=1
Remember, the Arians asserted that Jesus was a creature and thus a really, really special creation—but not God. He’s all human and not divine.
100% (human) then 100% (divine) = 100% (Jesus): held by some Adoptionists
The adoptionists believed in a human Jesus but they taught that God made Jesus divine by sending the Spirit upon him at his baptism by John. Others maintained no ontological change but posited a legal fiction model (100% (human) as if 100% (divine) = 100%).
0% (human) + 100% (divine) = 100% (Jesus) held by the Docetists, Gnostics, Marcionites
A major heresy of the early years, it was fueled by Neo-Platonic distaste for materiality—anything physical, tangible, and therefore corruptible. It would be beneath a true spirit-god to take on matter, they reasoned, and thus Jesus only seemed human (the Greek word for “seem”—dokeo—thus naming the heresy). This heresy pops up in popular religion whenever piety recoils at a material Jesus with all the concomitant issues. Anyone who has a hard time with a Jesus who sweated, got stinky, and took craps holds some docetic views.
Most Gnostic groups had a docetic understanding of Jesus as did Marcion (who was similar to but different from the Gnostics). Technically speaking, many gnostic groups held that all humanity (or at least a portion thereof) fell into the same category as Jesus. Humanity, the material part, was just a prison for the real self which was entirely spirit—divine. In recent years, the cosmology of the Matrix series is essentially gnostic—that the spirit or mind part of humanity is trapped in a prison-world from which it must be freed through access to special knowledge and a redeemed Redeemer.
50% (human) + 50% (divine) = 100% (Jesus): held by Apollonarianists
This group believed that while Jesus had a human body he had a divine soul. Kind of like a god taking possession of a lifeless body and walking around with it. (aka “zombie Christology”)
100% (human) + 100% (divine) = 200% (Jesus) held by Nestorians
The Nestorians believed that there were actually two Jesuses; one was the pre-existent Second Person of the Trinity, the other the human who wandered around Palestine. The distinction that one often hears in academic circles between “Jesus” and “Christ”, sometimes expanded as “the Jesus of History” and “the Christ of Faith”, smacks of Nestorianism.