Saturday, May 09, 2009

Church History Lesson 15 (Defining the Faith)

Note: I taught a Sunday School on Church History in 2004 in New Hampshire. Starting in February I'll be teaching the same course here in Virginia. So any posts, including the one below, and especially for the first half of the series, are more or less repeats.

Church History Lesson 1 (Introduction)
Church History Lesson 2 (Time is Ripe: Part 1)
Church History Lesson 2 (Time is Ripe: Part 2)
Church History Lesson 3 (The Start of The Church)
Church History Lesson 4 (The Life of Jesus)
Church History Lesson 5 (The New Community)
Church History Lesson 6 (The Church at Antioch)
Church History Lesson 7 (The First Council)
Church History Lesson 8 (Paul's Second Missionary Journey)
Church History Lesson 9 (The End of the Apostolic Age)
Church History Lesson 10 (Those Crazy 60s!)
Church History Lesson 11 (The Next 200 Years)
Church History Lesson 12 (Worship in the Early Church)
Church History Lesson 13 (New Testament Writings)
Church History Lesson 14 (Early Christian Heresies)

(Note: generously adopting and lifting from F. F. Bruce's fantastic book: The Spreading Flame.)

Defining the Faith
Let us quickly review the early church heresies that we discussed last week.


This was a denial of the incarnation. There were variations, but a common view was that the Christ-Spirit came upon the Jesus-man at his baptism, and departed from him at the crucifixion, leaving the Jesus-man to die. Another Docetic school held that Jesus' human form was an illusion, ghost, or phantom. As we saw last time, a form of Docetism is even found in the Koran:
And for claiming that they killed the Messiah, Jesus, son of Mary, the messenger of GOD. In fact, they never killed him, they never crucified him - they were made to think that they did. All factions who are disputing in this matter are full of doubt concerning this issue. They possess no knowledge; they only conjecture. For certain, they never killed him. (Koran 4:157)


Gnosticism generally included Docetism, but went way beyond it. It was, and is, in many ways, the most dangerous of all heresies for its enduring ability to attract advocates. In the modern era it is represented by the New Age movement, Astrology, Eastern Religions, etc. It incorporated the idea of knowledge as being the path to salvation. The goal of acquiring the special knowledge was to awaken the divine within us—remnants of the creation of the material world by a misguided demigod. Jesus was a messenger of the supreme god, come to enlighten us as to how we could return to the intended spiritual state.

Gnostics, unlike Christians, do not believe that God created the earth, or that creation of the material world was "good."

The identification of the physical as evil resulted in one of two extreme lifestyle choices: asceticism or, following the logic that the flesh is irrelevant, "anything goes."


A sort of minimal Gnosticism in which there are two gods: the lesser god of the Old Testament, who did the unsavory act of creating the material world, and the loving merciful god of the New Testament, who was Jesus’ father. Recall that Marcion’s rewriting of scripture provided the incentive for the Church to make great strides in organizing the canon.


One could debate whether this is properly labeled as a heresy or just a misguided sect. While Gnosticism exaggerated the importance of the intellect, Montanism overemphasized the experiential. The Montanists believed that the age of the Son had ended and the age of the Paraclete (Holy Spirit) had begun. They exalted prophets and prophetess, who spoke not as messengers, “…Thus saith the Lord,” but rather as if they were possessed by God, such as Montanus: "I am the Father, the Word, and the Paraclete." The greatest known Montanist was Tertullian.

Defining the Faith

The church had to respond to these early heresies. One important way was through early creeds, used for the most part, especially in the earliest days, during baptisms. The creeds were modified from time to time to arrest the spread of error. Thus the early baptismal creed had to be extended beyond the line:
I believe in God the Father.
Since, for example, Marcion could affirm such a statement, to
I believe in God the Father, maker of heaven and earth.
This, neither Marcion (nor any of the Gnostics) could affirm, for it identified the God the Father—whom they would consider the New Testament god—with God the creator, or the Old Testament god. Irenaeus (115-190), Bishop of Lyon, and author of Against Heresies (Full title included Detection and Overthrow of the False Knowledge, i.e., this work was meant to refute Gnosticism) summarized, around A.D. 180, the church’s beliefs as:
" God, the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven, and earth, and the sea, and all things that are in them; and in one Christ Jesus, the Son of God, who became incarnate for our salvation; and in the Holy Spirit, who proclaimed through the prophets the dispensations of God, and the advents, and the birth from a virgin, and the passion, and the resurrection from the dead, and the ascension into heaven in the flesh of the beloved Christ Jesus, our Lord, and His manifestation from heaven in the glory of the Father ‘to gather all things in one,' and to raise up anew all flesh of the whole human race, in order that to Christ Jesus, our Lord, and God, and Savior, and King, according to the will of the invisible Father, ‘every knee should bow, of things in heaven, and things in earth, and things under the earth, and that every tongue should confess; to him, and that He should execute just judgment towards all...'" (Against Heresies X.l)
Here it is again made plain that God the Maker is also God the Father, and that the current Christian dispensation is vitally connected to the Old Testament, since through the Holy Spirit it was proclaimed through the prophets.

Here we see our threefold confession: In God the Creator and Father, Jesus the Son, and the Holy Spirit. The orthodox understanding relationship among the three personalities, however, would not develop so easily, but more of that anon.

The Apostolic Tradition, usually credited to Hippolytus (?-236, and the first antipope) contains the following baptismal liturgy
When the elder takes hold of each of them who are to receive baptism, he shall tell each of them to renounce, saying, "I renounce you Satan, all your service, and all your works." After he has said this, he shall anoint each with the Oil of Exorcism, saying, "Let every evil spirit depart from you." Then, after these things, the bishop passes each of them on nude to the elder who stands at the water. They shall stand in the water naked. A deacon, likewise, will go down with them into the water. When each of them to be baptized has gone down into the water, the one baptizing shall lay hands on each of them, asking, "Do you believe in God the Father Almighty?" And the one being baptized shall answer, "I believe." He shall then baptize each of them once, laying his hand upon each of their heads. Then he shall ask, "Do you believe in Jesus Christ, the Son of God, who was born of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary, who was crucified under Pontius Pilate, and died, and rose on the third day living from the dead, and ascended into heaven, and sat down at the right hand of the Father, the one coming to judge the living and the dead?" When each has answered, "I believe," he shall baptize a second time. Then he shall ask, "Do you believe in the Holy Spirit and the Holy Church and the resurrection of the flesh?" Then each being baptized shall answer, "I believe." And thus let him baptize the third time.
Note that from the earlier creedal statement, we see the expansion of the description of Christ. This is adapted into the so-called Apostle’s creed, which we present below annotated so as to clarify its response to Gnosticism.
I believe in God the Father Almighty, Maker of Heaven and Earth,

Gnostics taught that the material world is evil, and that God the Father did not make it.
And in Jesus Christ, His only Son, Our Lord, Who was conceived by the Holy Ghost, Born of the Virgin Mary,

Gnostics (and Docetists) denied that God had taken human nature or a human body. As stated, many believed the Christ-Spirit came upon the man Jesus at his baptism, and departed from him at the crucifixion, or that Jesus’ human form was an illusion. Against this denial of the Incarnation, the Church affirmed that Jesus was conceived through the action of the Holy Spirit, refuting the Gnostic claim that the Spirit had nothing to do with Jesus until His baptism, that he was born (i.e., he had a real physical body, and not just an appearance) of a virgin (which implied that he had been special from the first moment of his life, and not just from His baptism).
Suffered under Pontius Pilate,

Affirms that Jesus, in his deity, suffered—he was no whisked away leaving just a human shell to suffer. Recall that Docetic literature such as the Gospel of Peter denied that Jesus as God suffered.
was crucified, dead, and buried; he descended into Hades.
The explicit reference to dead and buried, and the descent into Hades (Hell), make it clear that the death of Jesus was not just a swoon or a coma, but death in every sense of the word.
The third day he rose from the dead, he ascended into heaven,
and is seated at the right hand of God the Father Almighty.
From thence he shall come to judge the living and the dead.

I believe in the Holy Ghost,
the holy catholic church,
Gnostics believed that the most important Christian doctrines were reserved for a select, intellectual elite. The creed affirms that the fullness of the Gospel was to be preached to the entire human race. Hence the term "catholic," or universal.
the communion of saints,
the forgiveness of sins,
Gnostics denied that men needed redemption or forgiveness, but enlightenment. Ignorance was the only unpardonable sin. Some of them, believing the body to be a snare and delusion, led lives of great asceticism. Others, believing the body to be quite independent of the soul, held that it did not matter what the body did. They accordingly led libertine lives. Either way, the notion of forgiveness was alien to them.
the resurrection of the body,
The chief goal of the Gnostics was to shed the body, which was but a prison of the spiritual. Their goal was to return spiritually to the heavenly realm. They totally rejected any idea of the resurrection of the body.
and the life everlasting. AMEN

The Nature of the Threefold Revelation

Although the baptismal and doctrinal creeds did much to combat Gnosticism, there still remained the difficult question of the exact nature of the relationship among the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. This complex issue resulted in additional heresy.


Monarchianism had a noble goal: addressing the criticism that Christians were tritheists, that is they worshipped three gods. (Today, many non-Christians including Jews, and even some who call themselves Christians, still view orthodox Christianity’s claim of monotheism as being patently absurd.) The various schools of thought know as Monarchianism taught that Jesus and the Spirit were but emanations from God, or that they were merely different forms in which the Father chose to manifest himself from time to time.

One Monarchian school was Dynamism. Christ, according to the Dynamists, was a faculty, feature, or emanation of God, like the rays of the sun or a stream from a fountain. The bottom line: the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost are but a single Person. One of the leading proponents of Dynamism was the scandalous Bishop of Antioch, Paul of Samosata, whom we met earlier (Lesson 11). In 268, the Church condemned him as a heretic. He was accused of acquiring great wealth by illicit means, of showing haughtiness and worldliness, of having set up for himself a lofty pulpit in the church, and of insulting those who did not applaud him and wave their handkerchiefs, of admitting women to live in his house, and had permitted the same to his clergy.)

Ironically, this Paul, a heretic, is noteworthy for introducing into the theology of the trinity the Greek adjective homoousios (of the same substance) which will be important in the orthodox formulation.

Dynamism was usually coupled with Adoptionism, which taught that Jesus the man was promoted to the rank of Son of God because of his perfect obedience. This heresy makes its way into classic literature, when Milton, in Paradise Regained, puts these words into the mouth of the Father:
This perfect Man, by merit call'd your Son.
A more popular school of Monarchianism was called Sabellianism (after Sabellius, priest of Northern Africa, ~215) or Modalism. According to this school, The Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are simply three roles played by God. The Sabellianists do not deny, for example, the Apostle’s creed, for it describes the three manifestations of God while saying nothing of His inner being.

The Sabellianists were also called Patripassians, (pater –father, passio –suffering) for their doctrine implied that the Father and the Son are essentially the same person, and so the father suffered on the cross. The Sabellianists, according to Tertullian, “drove out prophecy and brought in heresy, expelled the Paraclete (Holy Spirit) and crucified the Father.”

In the same way that Marcion stimulated the church begin formalizing the canon, Monarchianism forced the church to examine the scriptures to formulate the correct view of the triune God. In particular, Sabellianism (Modalism), while not completely unattractive, was simply incompatible with scripture that spoke of the Father sending the Son, or the Father and Son sending the Holy Spirit, or the Son praying to the Father, etc.
that all should honor the Son just as they honor the Father. He who does not honor the Son does not honor the Father who sent Him. (John 5:23)

that they all may be one, as You, Father, are in Me, and I in You; that they also may be one in Us, that the world may believe that You sent Me. (John 17:21)

And because you are sons, God has sent forth the Spirit of His Son into your hearts, crying out, "Abba, Father!" (Gal. 4:6)

16I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Counselor to be with you forever– 17the Spirit of truth. The world cannot accept him, because it neither sees him nor knows him. But you know him, for he lives with you and will be in you. (John 14:16-17)

But I tell you the truth: It is for your good that I am going away. Unless I go away, the Counselor will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you. (John 16:7)
The problem, then and now, is summarized succinctly by F. F. Bruce: Our conception of God must fall short of His real being, and our language about him must fall short of our conception.

In defining an orthodox doctrine of the Trinity, it has proved extremely difficult to find the right terms that avoid error in the two extremes: Modalism, in which the Father, Son, and Spirit are just three ways that God alternately reveals himself, or tritheism, in which the three are so distinct as to constitute three different gods.

It must be established that, axiomatically, Christianity, and the New Testament, affirms monotheism as ardently as Judaism. Whatever else we may, as Christians, say about the nature of God, we solidly affirm that He is One. As Christians, we agree with the Jewish creed of Maimonides that states:
I believe with perfect faith that the Creator, blessed be His name, is a Unity, and that there is no unity in any manner like unto His, and that He alone isour God who was, is, and will be.

But, unlike Jews, we do not see the unity of God as a monolithic unity. As the early theologians struggled to find ways to express this, we must remember that they were not merely waxing philosophical, but trying to find expression that did justice to revelation and experience. God had revealed Himself, and had been experienced, as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and in His word. God did not, as the Adoptionists taught, wait around until a man of Jesus’ stellar character arrived; God took the initiative in sending the Son.

Among the church fathers, Hippolytus was forceful in his attack on the Roman bishops (popes) Zephyrinus (202-217) and Callistus (217-222) in what he regarded as their complicity in the spread of Sabellianism, although it must be added that Callistus eventually excommunicated Sabellius.

It was, however, Tertullian who provided the greatest service in developing the terms that began to express what Christians believed but couldn’t say.

It is to Tertullian to whom we owe the word “Trinity”, and also the language of one substance in three persons. And though we still use the words substance and persons in describing the trinity, they do not mean exactly what they meant for Tertullian, and so in some ways our expression of the Trinity suffers somewhat.

For Tertullian, the Latin word persona denoted one who played a part or performed a function in society. Tertullian adopted the word to theology, and spoke of three persona in the indivisible Godhead. Today, the word means more that it did to Tertullian, essentially meaning “persons”, but three persons is closer to a tritheist view that we really want to go.

Likewise, when Tertullian used the word substance (Latin substantia) we again have a problem. Tertullian did not mean it as we do today; for us the word substance is inextricably tied to materiality. We view "of one substance" as meaning "made out of the same stuff." Tertullian would have meant something closer to the modern meaning of "essence" rather than substance. For Tertullian and other third century theologians:
God is one Being, eternally existing the threefold relationship of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; each of these three is "the one God, thinking, willing and acting, in one of His three eternal spheres of thought, volition and activity… the indivisible Godhead subsisting and operating in one of the essential relations of His Tripersonal life." (H.B. Swete, The Holy Spirit in the Ancient Church)
Origen of Alexandria, probably the church's greatest thinker and scholar of the first three centuries, also struggled with the doctrine of the Trinity. In Origen's reaction to Monarchianism, he went too far. He thought that the Father, Son, and Spirit occupied a hierarchical position within the unity of the Godhead. The Son was subordinate to the Father, and the Spirit to the Son. He even taught that the Son was a creature, not in the sense that he was a created being but that the Son's being was derived from the Father's and is subject to His will. (He was not, however, an Arian—a heresy of the following [fourth] century that denied the divinity of Christ, which we will discuss later.)

The third century did not end (if indeed it ever has ended) the debate on the doctrine of God’s inner being. The next big advancement would come with the Arian controversy.

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