Early Christian Heresies

My Bible study group on Sundays has been going through Second Peter for the past several weeks. In chapter two we get a pretty good description of the false teachers that crept into the church (2 Peter 2:1). I believe that people are easily led astray by persuasive arguments when they fail to develop a first hand faith (Colossians 2:4, 5, Acts 18:4, 19:8, 26:28, 28:24, 1 Corinthians 2:4-5, Galatians 5:7-9). Faith that is built upon convictions will not be moved, whereas a second hand faith can be tossed around by the waves (James 1:6).

Second hand faith looks like this: I believe that Jesus is the Savior because my preacher says so. My parents taught me that the Bible is the Word of God. My Sunday School teacher told me to stay away from this sin or that belief.

First hand faith develops a conviction that will not be persuaded when we get a knock on the door and are told that there is another testament of Jesus Christ in North America. First hand faith will not fall when someone reads books from authors like Richard Dawkins, who teach that God is only a delusion.

So, let’s take a look at some of the heresies that threatened the early church:

Most of the eyewitnesses to Jesus’ ministry had died by the time John composed this letter. Some of the second- or third-generation Christians began to have doubts about what they had been taught about Jesus. Some Christians with a Greek background had a hard time believing that Jesus was human as well as divine, because in Platonic thought the spirit was all-important. The body was only a prison from which one desired to escape. Heresies developed from a uniting of this kind of Platonic thought and Christianity.

A particularly widespread false teaching, later called Docetism (from a Greek work meaning “to seem”) held that Jesus was actually a spirit who only appeared to have a body. In reality he cast no shadow and left no footprints; he was God, but not man.

Another heretical teaching, related to Gnosticism (from a Greek word meaning “knowledge”) held that all physical matter was evil, the spirit was good, and only the intellectually enlightened could enjoy the benefits of religion. Both groups found it hard to believe in a Savior who was fully human.

John answers these false teachers as an eyewitness to Jesus’ life on earth. He saw Jesus, talked with him, touched him, he knew that Jesus was more than a mere spirit (1 John 1:1, 2, 3). In the very first sentence of his gospel, John establishes that Jesus had been alive before the world began (John 1:1) and also that he lived as a man among men and women (John 1:14). In other words, he was both divine and human. That’s the incarnation; that’s what Christmas is all about.

Through the centuries, many heretics have denied that Jesus was both God and man. In John’s day people had trouble believing he was human; today more people have problems seeing him as God. But Jesus’ divine-human nature is the pivotal issue of Christianity; 100 percent God, 100 percent man, not half and half. Before you accept what religious teachers say about any topic listen carefully to what they believe about Jesus. To deny either his divinity or his humanity is to consider him less than Christ, the Savior (1 John 4:2, 2 John 1:7).

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Paul and the Incarnation

Incarnation literally means “becoming the flesh.” Paul saw this event from two sides: the side of God and the side of Jesus.

The side of God:

  1. For what the Law could not do, weak as it was through the flesh, God [did:] sending His own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and [as an offering] for sin, He condemned sin in the flesh, (Romans 8:3)
  2. Nor height, nor depth, nor any other created thing, shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 8:39)
  3. Namely, that God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and He has committed to us the word of reconciliation. (2 Corinthians 5:19)
  4. Thanks be to God for His indescribable gift! (2 Corinthians 9:15)

The side of Jesus: the sacrifice of Christ did not begin on earth, but in eternity.

  1. For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though He was rich, yet for your sake He became poor, that you through His poverty might become rich. (2 Corinthians 8:9). This is called the kenotic theory of the incarnation, more fully described here:
  2. Have this attitude in yourselves which was also in Christ Jesus, who, although He existed in the form of God, did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied Himself, taking the form of a bond-servant, [and] being made in the likeness of men. And being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Therefore also God highly exalted Him, and bestowed on Him the name which is above every name, that at the name of Jesus EVERY KNEE SHOULD BOW, of those who are in heaven, and on earth, and under the earth, and that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. (Philippians 2:5-11)

The strange thing about this kenotic theory is that is baffles the mind yet moves the heart:

  1. God is omniscient, yet it is clear that in His earthly life there were things of which Jesus did not know (Mark 13:32)
  2. God is omnipotent, yet it is clear that there were things which Jesus in His earthly life could not do. He would even tire and needed sleep (John 4:6, Mark 4:38)
  3. God is omnipresent, yet it is clear that during His earthly life Jesus was bound by the laws of time and space.
  4. We can say that His metaphysical attributes (above) were emptied, but not His moral attributes of goodness, justice and love. This theory sets out to explain the unimaginable love of God for man.

Paul stresses the reality of the incarnation: directing his teaching against the heresy of docetism, that Jesus only appeared to be a man but in reality He had no human body at all.

  1. Concerning His Son, who was born of a descendant of David according to the flesh, (Romans 1:3)
  2. For what the Law could not do, weak as it was through the flesh, God [did:] sending His own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and [as an offering] for sin, He condemned sin in the flesh, (Romans 8:3)

Docetism: (dokein – to seem) tried to honor the divinity of Jesus by teaching that Jesus was merely a phantom figure. Paul insisted that Jesus had a human body, if He was ever to redeem sinful man. To Paul, we are saved as much by the life of Jesus as we are by His death.

The efficacy of the life of Jesus in the work of salvation:

  1. For since by a man [came] death, by a man also [came] the resurrection of the dead. 22 For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ all shall be made alive. (1 Corinthians 15:21-22)
  2. Therefore, just as through one man sin entered into the world, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men, because all sinned–for until the Law sin was in the world; but sin is not imputed when there is no law. Nevertheless death reigned from Adam until Moses, even over those who had not sinned in the likeness of the offense of Adam, who is a type of Him who was to come. But the free gift is not like the transgression. For if by the transgression of the one the many died, much more did the grace of God and the gift by the grace of the one Man, Jesus Christ, abound to the many. And the gift is not like [that which came] through the one who sinned; for on the one hand the judgment [arose] from one [transgression] resulting in condemnation, but on the other hand the free gift [arose] from many transgressions resulting in justification. For if by the transgression of the one, death reigned through the one, much more those who receive the abundance of grace and of the gift of righteousness will reign in life through the One, Jesus Christ. So then as through one transgression there resulted condemnation to all men, even so through one act of righteousness there resulted justification of life to all men. For as through the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, even so through the obedience of the One the many will be made righteous. And the Law came in that the transgression might increase; but where sin increased, grace abounded all the more, that, as sin reigned in death, even so grace might reign through righteousness to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord. (Romans 5:12-21)

Solidarity of a people: always a member of a family, clan or a nation. a person existed not as an individual but as a unit in a society. A vivid example is in Joshua 7 (defeat at Ai as the result of one man’s disobedience after Jericho, AND the entire family being put to death by the act of one man in the family).

Paul’s argument that all men sinned in Adam:

  1. Therefore, just as through one man sin entered into the world, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men, because all sinned– (Romans 5:12)
    • Death is the consequence of sin.
    • Adam broke the positive command of God.
  2. For until the Law sin was in the world; but sin is not imputed when there is no law. Nevertheless death reigned from Adam until Moses, even over those who had not sinned in the likeness of the offense of Adam, who is a type of Him who was to come. (Romans 5:13-14)
    • If there is no law, there is no sin, a breach in the law
    • Between Adam and Moses, no sin existed, but men died
  3. For if by the transgression of the one, death reigned through the one, much more those who receive the abundance of grace and of the gift of righteousness will reign in life through the One, Jesus Christ. (Romans 5:17) The answer is that men died because they had all sinned in Adam.

The other side of the argument: Into this world Jesus brings the perfect righteousness and perfect obedience of God.

  1. So then as through one transgression there resulted condemnation to all men, even so through one act of righteousness there resulted justification of life to all men. For as through the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, even so through the obedience of the One the many will be made righteous. (Romans 5:18-19)
  2. By this perfect obedience, the evil chain of sin and death is broken and a new holiness enters in. Just as the solidarity of mankind is involved in the sin of Adam, the solidarity of mankind is involved in the holiness of Christ. For this argument to be valid, the incarnation must be absolutely real. Jesus must be just as human as was Adam.

The flaw is this: our connection with Adam is a physical one where we can neither choose nor reject. Our connection with Christ is a spiritual one, it is by no means an inevitable relationship, it is something which we can either accept or reject.

Basically, no man can reasonably be condemned because he is physically connected to his ancestors, but any man must bear the responsibility for accepting or refuting his connection with Jesus.

Paul argument has an eternal truth: man is involved in a situation from which he cannot free himself, and that Christ liberated him from that tragic and impotent situation.

This material is from William Barclay, the Mind of St. Paul, 1975.

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