Ancient Heresies that Might Still Haunt Us

2By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God; 3and every spirit that does not confess Jesus is not from God; this is the spirit of the antichrist, of which you have heard that it is coming, and now it is already in the world (1 John 4:2-3).

The Bible informs us that “there is nothing new under the sun” (Eccl 1:9), and that principle applies to doctrinal errors too. Before we move to consider the biblical teaching about the virgin birth of Jesus Christ, we need to be reminded that Satan has launched attacks at the doctrine of Christ for centuries. The Apostle John issues the warnings above because the person and work of Christ are at the center of salvation, and the devil’s efforts (“the spirit of antichrist”) seem to focus on distorting the truth about Jesus Christ.

These two verses from 1 John teach clearly the deity (“has come”) and humanity (“in the flesh”) of Jesus Christ. Over the course of centuries many heresies have developed which denied one of these two essential truths. Please allow me to give a quick heresy overview:

  1. Nestorianism—an ancient heresy developed from the teachings of Nestorius, bishop of Constantinople. Nestorians believed that Christ has two distinct personalities, one human and one divine (i.e., He was a divine person [Son of God] and a human person [Jesus of Nazareth born of Mary]). This was condemned at the Council of Ephesus in A. D. 431.
  2. Docetism—this heresy takes its name from the Greek word dokeo which means “to seem or appear” and denied the genuine humanity of Jesus Christ. In other words, Jesus was not truly human; He only seemed to be human. A second century Gnostic, Valentinus, argued that from conception to birth the Lord Jesus passed through the body of His mother “like water through a pipe” and that He derived no part of His humanity from her.
  3. Ebionism—this heresy arose, apparently, as an attempt to square belief in the deity of Jesus Christ with the biblical teaching about monotheism. Sadly, it did so by denying the deity of Christ (along with the biblical teaching about the virgin birth).
  4. Monarchianism
    • Dynamic—originated by Theodotus, a Byzantine leather merchant, and introduced to Rome @ 190 A.D. “He maintained…that prior to baptism Jesus was an ordinary man, although a completely virtuous one. At the baptism, the Spirit, or Christ, descended upon him, and from that time on he performed miraculous works of God” (Erickson, p. 333). The point was that there was no substantive presence of God in Jesus, only the working or force of God upon or in or through him.
    • Modal—in its attempt to guard the unity of the Godhead, modalism affirmed that there is one “Godhead which may be variously designated as Father, Son, or Spirit. The terms do not stand for real distinctions, but merely names which are appropriate and applicable at different times. Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are identical—they are successive revelations of the same person. The modalistic solution to the paradox of threeness and oneness was, then, not three persons, but one person with three different names, roles, or activities” (Erickson, 334). One element of modalism was the belief that the Father suffered along with the Son, “since he was actually present in and personally identical with the Son” (p. 335). This is called patripassianism and is properly rejected as heretical.
  5. Arianism—an Alexandrian elder named Arius formulated a more thorough doctrine regarding Christ than did the Ebionites, but his basic teaching was the same—Jesus was not divine. Again, the driving force was an unrelenting, but distorted, defense of monotheism. The Word was not God, but the highest created being. He was not self-existent or eternal.
  6. Eutychianism/Monophysitism—in an overreaction to the Nestorian heresy, a group arose which denied that Jesus possessed two natures. They believed that Jesus possessed only one nature, God made flesh and become man. Some even seemed to move so far as to imply that this one nature was really a hybrid, a mixture of deity and humanity.

Failing to honor properly the Bible’s teaching about the deity and the humanity of Jesus Christ always results in heresy. The doctrine of the virgin birth, therefore, is a wonderful window into how these two natures are united in One person—the God-man Jesus Christ.

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