Ancient heretic theories about Jesus.

by K.W. Leslie, 14 December

Because the New Testament never bluntly spells out, “Here’s precisely what Christ Jesus did and how he works,” Christians have had to deduce a number of things about him, based on various things we gleaned from the bible.

Fr’instance most of us wanna know what he looked like. And while John, in Revelation, actually does say what he looks like, Rv 1.12-16 too many of us insist that passage isn’t meant to be taken literally. Mostly because Jesus has bronze skin and white hair, and too many of us expect a more conventional depiction of White Jesus.

In that, you can see the common problem among Christian theologians: We all have our biases. We come to the scriptures with an idea already in mind, and wanna find proof texts to back us up. Sometimes the scriptures won’t do that! And that’s okay; we’re wrong, and the scriptures are meant to correct us when we’re wrong. 2Ti 3.16 But too often we won’t admit we’re wrong; too often we’ve convinced ourselves our clever ideas are really God-ideas, so the scriptures have to prove us right. If being right is more important than being scrupulous (and for too many people, it absolutely is), we’ll subtly tweak the scriptures this way and that till they do “prove us right”—and that’s how we get heresies.

The ancient Christians ran up against a whole lot of heresies, ’cause the Roman Empire largely practiced freedom of religion. No really: As far as the Romans were concerned, you could worship any god you wished. True, they persecuted Jews and Christians—but that’s largely because we told people you couldn’t worship any god you wished. Wasn’t very liberal of us. But in any event, you could worship any god; you could even introduce new gods and build temples, and start synagogues and teach newbies about your god. A number of gnostics did exactly that, and taught all kinds of weirdness. Some of these gnostics claimed to be Christian, and had all sorts of weird heretic things to teach about Christ Jesus as well.

In our day we also have freedom of religion. And, yep, gnostics. Who teach all sorts of weird heretic things about Jesus, and start churches and sell books. They make some pretty good money at it; they get fans, which feed their pride and make ’em think they’re all the more clever and inspired. But they’re leading people away from God, his grace, and his kingdom. These aren’t little errors. They’ll interfere with people’s salvation, or trick ’em into rejecting God.

Of course these heretics already refer to us orthodox Christians as “heretics”—they’re entirely sure they’re right and we’re not. And to be fair, we’re all wrong. But these folks are so wrong as to be called heretic, where their beliefs stand a really good chance of leading people away from God. They prefer their ideas about what God is like, over what God actually revealed about himself. They figure either God’s revelations are wrong, or misinterpreted—whereas they got it right, and how clever of them to see what others don’t. How wise of them; how inspired; what special favorites of God’s they must be. And all the other delusions pride can trick us into.

Heretic theories tend to fall into one of five categories:

  1. JESUS IS ANOTHER GOD. Most heretics figure Jesus isn’t the God, but a god. Another god. The God created Jesus as another god under him, like his vice-God, or prince of all the angels, or demiurge who does all the work while he sits back and rules. Jesus is some powerful being who’s not the very same One True God.
  2. JESUS ISN’T REALLY GOD. Jesus gets called “the son of God,” but that’s just a title the Hebrews gave their messiahs, their ancient kings, to indicate how these guys weren’t gods, but only worked for God. And same as all we other humans are daughters and sons of God. Like us, Jesus is another one of God’s creations. He’s still Messiah, a great teacher and prophet; he’s gonna rule the world; he’s the best human God ever made. But not God.
  3. JESUS ISN’T REALLY HUMAN. Jesus is in fact God; he’s definitely God. But he couldn’t fully give up his divinity to become human (and why would he?) so his humanity was only pretense. He appeared to be human, lest he freak people out too much. But he’s fully divine, wearing what appeared to be a human form.
  4. JESUS IS A DEMIGOD. In pagan religions, gods and humans bred and made demigods, half-and-half hybrids who were either supermen or lesser gods, like Herakles and Perseus and Aeneas. Demigod heresies describe Jesus these ways—part-God instead of entirely God, part-human instead of fully human.
  5. JESUS IS GOD—AND YOU CAN BE GOD TOO! A number of pantheists have wormed this idea into Christianity: Every human being has a divine spark in us, and Jesus fanned his own spark into full-on divinity. Now he’s teaching us to do the same thing. Follow Jesus, and you can become God too.

Whereas, to answer these theories, orthodox Christians aver:

  1. Jesus is the same God, Pp 2.6 and God is One. Dt 6.4 There isn’t another God.
  2. Jesus is as God as God can be. Jn 1.1-2
  3. He’s human; Jn 1.14 more human than humans are, ’cause we sin, which dings us quite a lot.
  4. True, to become human, Jesus was depowered, Pp 2.7 and had to perform miracles through the Holy Spirit’s power. Ac 10.38 But godlike power doesn’t make you God; it’s like saying arms and legs make you human. Divine nature does, and Jesus absolutely has that. He 1.3
  5. There’s only one God, and we’re not him… and Jesus is.

The popular heresies.

As is taught by a lot of folks in popular culture, in late antiquity the pope called together a bunch of cardinals and said, “Okay, this is orthodoxy: Jesus is divine, God’s a trinity and Jesus is in it, keep these books of the New Testament and not the others, and cover up everything about Jesus’s wife and family.”

This conspiracy theory is how people explain how Christianity transformed from a living faith into Roman Catholicism—and how all their favorite heretic beliefs about Historical Jesus got suppressed. (It’s actually not far removed from what Fundamentalists claim.) It’s heavily borrowed from the novel The Da Vinci Code, especially the bits about Jesus’s wife and family. (Nope, didn’t have a wife. Definitely had family though.) But it’s pure drivel.

Those who talk about Historical Jesus like to speculate all sorts of interesting things about Jesus, loosely based on the gospels but largely taken from apocrypha, fanfiction, and their own imagination. Little of it from the scriptures; none of it from actually following Jesus and obeying his commands. They’re not the only ones who come up with harebrained ideas about Jesus; plenty of people would love to come up with a novel approach to him, and gain followers and sell books. Or they have a political axe to grind, and wanna win Christians to their side by “proving” Jesus believes likewise.

As is true of all heresies, they create unanticipated results which cause big problems among Christians. Fr’instance if your church claims Jesus isn’t truly human: This becomes a serious problem when we’re trying to use Jesus as our example of how we humans oughta live. Even orthodox Christians will try to use the excuse, “Yeah Jesus could do that, ’cause he’s God. But I can’t.” Since Jesus is truly human, that’s not an acceptable excuse! But for heretics, who insist he’s not… well it is what they’ve been teaching.

Likewise if your church teaches Jesus is a different god than the LORD. Naturally your church winds up prioritizing Old Testament over New Testament, or vice versa, depending on which god you’d rather follow. Again, orthodox Christians suffer from this problem too. But when we listen to the Holy Spirit, he straightens us out. Whereas heretic Christians ignore the Spirit, don’t even know him, and remain wrong—and often gracelessly, dangerously so.

So. Here’s a handy list of the better-known heresies in Christendom. Note they all date back to ancient times. Not because there haven’t been new heresies since; it’s because all these “new heresies” are simply the same old ones with new packaging. Ain’t nothing new under the sun.

Adoptionism.

WHOM TO BLAME. Theodosius of Byzantium, back in the 190s.
GOD, HUMAN, DEMIGOD, OR WHAT? Human. Got promoted. By virtue of his outstanding life, the Holy Spirit turned Jesus of Nazareth into “the Son of God.”
BONEHEADED IDEAS. So… maybe we can do likewise! (Mormon theology leans this way.)

Apollinarism.

WHOM TO BLAME. Apollinaris of Laodicea, 370s.
GOD, HUMAN, DEMIGOD, OR WHAT? Demigod. Jesus has a human body and emotions (the “lower soul”), but no mind, no will. That was taken over by the divine “word,” turning Jesus into a human/divine hybrid.
BONEHEADED IDEAS. Hence the body and emotions can’t be redeemed by a Spirit-led life. We have to kill off the body and become pure spirits. (Much as Platonists believed.)

Arianism.

ALSO CALLED: Jehovah’s Witnesses.
WHOM TO BLAME. Arius of Alexandria, 310s.
GOD, HUMAN, DEMIGOD, OR WHAT? Another god. At creation, Jesus was created as a subordinate god to the One God. So we’re bitheists.
BONEHEADED IDEAS. Much as Jesus said we can’t serve two masters, Arians lean towards worshiping one god over the other; usually Jesus over the One God. (JWs tend to worship the One God over Jesus.)

Docetism.

WHOM TO BLAME. Unknown; 70s.
GOD, HUMAN, DEMIGOD, OR WHAT? God. Jesus wasn’t human. People only δοκοῦσιν/dokúsin, think, he’s human; he seems human; he’s not really. Hence the term. (People tend to confuse docetists with gnostics, ’cause most gnostics adopted this idea.)
BONEHEADED IDEAS. So Jesus didn’t really share a true human experience. His birth was somehow painless; Mary felt nothing. He never had childhood injuries, never had childhood diseases, never got a splinter despite all the carpentry, never grew tired, never got sweaty, never farted after a heavy meal of chickpea stew. When he was crucified he didn’t really suffer, which is why he never screamed or shouted out, and bore it silently. When he died he didn’t really die; he only appeared to, but went to heaven. It’s still a popular view among Christians who are bothered by the idea of a truly human Christ. And of course Christian Scientists claim all reality is an illusion; so Christ Jesus’s human life would be too.

Ebionism.

ALSO CALLED: Psilanthropism, meaning “merely-human-ism.”
WHOM TO BLAME. People ever since the beginning; so, 30s. Named for the אֶבְיוֹן/evyón, “the poor,” a Christian sect which practiced holy poverty.
GOD, HUMAN, DEMIGOD, OR WHAT? Human. Jesus was just an ordinary human. A great prophet, even Messiah, but certainly not God.
BONEHEADED IDEAS. And as a mere human, Jesus is extremely clever, but faillble, and his statements of divinity are all probably myths. Hence this is the view of anyone who doesn’t believe Jesus is God, like pagans, Unitarians, and Muslims.

Modalism.

ALSO CALLED: Sabellianism, monarchianism, patripassianism, Oneness Pentecostalism.
WHOM TO BLAME. Sabellius of Rome, 210s.
GOD, HUMAN, DEMIGOD, OR WHAT? God. But God in human mode. See, sometimes God’s the Father… and sometimes he’s the Son (and on earth, Jesus of Nazareth), and sometimes the Holy Spirit. It all depends on what he’s currently doing. So God’s not actually a trinity; we’re just using different words for his different modes.
BONEHEADED IDEAS. Because he’s created the illusion of being three persons, God is a bit deceptive. (And deceptively complicated.) Further, God is more might than love.

Monophysitism.

ALSO CALLED: Eutycheanism.
WHOM TO BLAME. Eutyches of Constantinople, 430s.
GOD, HUMAN, DEMIGOD, OR WHAT? God. Jesus doesn’t have two natures, where he’s fully human and fully God: He has one nature, where he’s God. His divine nature overwhelms any human one.
BONEHEADED IDEAS. Jesus has no human nature, and therefore wasn’t ever tempted in the same ways we are.

Monothelitism.

WHOM TO BLAME. Patriarch Sergius 1 of Constantinople, 638.
GOD, HUMAN, DEMIGOD, OR WHAT? Demigod. Jesus has two natures, but only one divine will. He didn’t have to conform to what he saw the Father doing; he already had that will.
BONEHEADED IDEAS. Jesus had no human will, and didn’t have to resist temptation and conform to the Father’s will.

Monothelitism.

WHOM TO BLAME. Patriarch Nestorius of Constantinople, 420s.
GOD, HUMAN, DEMIGOD, OR WHAT? Demigod. Jesus doesn’t have two natures, but two persons—a human person and a divine person.
BONEHEADED IDEAS. Jesus has a human side and a divine side. (And sometimes they fight.) And because Mary only gave birth to the human person, it’s not accurate to call her the “mother of God,” ’cause Jesus isn’t God like that.

Sorting out the heresies.

On the upside, because of the ancient heresies, the ancient Christians had to hammer out what we do believe about Jesus’s identity, based on the scriptures. That Jesus is the same God as the Father was hammered out at the Council of Nicea in 325. The rest was pretty much summed up at the Council of Chalcedon in 451:

  1. ONE PERSON. Christ Jesus isn’t two people in one; not a god possessing a human, nor one man with two wills. He’s one person. One of the three persons of the trinity; he didn’t smuggle any extra person into there with him.
  2. TWO NATURES. Jesus has a human nature, ’cause he’s human; he’s not a demigod. At the same time he has a divine nature, ’cause he’s fully God; still not a demigod.
  3. WITHOUT CONFUSION, CHANGE, DIVISION, SEPARATION. The bishops wanted to make it clear Jesus isn’t in any way bifurcated or hybridized by having two natures.

Yeah, sometimes we humans struggle with the idea Jesus has two natures, ’cause we tend to think of divinity and humanity as two distinct species. Either Jesus is fully one, fully the other, or a hybrid; how can he be both at once? Grow a donkey in a horse’s womb and you get a donkey. Mate ’em together and you get a mule. But there’s no such thing as a creature who’s fully donkey and fully horse; that’s bad arithmetic.

The way I tend to explain it is to compare it with someone with dual citizenship. A Mexican born in the United States is a citizen of both the U.S. and Mexico. Can live in one country or the other, traveling back and forth between them, with most of the rights of a native, depending on how racist the locals are being. True, if these countries ever go to war again (God forbid), the dual citizen might have to pick a side, but otherwise there’s no reason one can’t be 100 percent both. Same with Jesus.

It’s not a perfect analogy; few are. My point is that trying to figure out how Jesus can simultaneously have two natures isn’t that hard to fathom. It’s just we Christians haven’t entirely thought out what a “nature” is—and still prefer to overemphasize Jesus being God at the expense of being human, or vice-versa. Both at the expense of how Jesus is described in the New Testament. And for bonus fun, we’ll keep spreading the rumors that the bishops in the church councils were up to no good.

All to remake Jesus into something he’s not, but something we feel more comfortable worshiping. Our own personal Jesuses. But they’re not real, and wishing doesn’t make ’em so. Good theology is about finding out who Jesus really is, and following him instead of our theories. It’s not easier, but it’s the only way to truly know him and his Father. Jn 14.9