Security companies enjoy a kind of odd gratitude for criminals. After all, without the threat of crime, such companies would have little in the way of business. It’s thanks to the attempted and successful acts of crime that these companies develop their walls, fences, locks, and alarms.
Christians, too, should have a similar kind of gratitude toward heretics. If it were not for their attempted vandalism of the faith once delivered to the saints, we may not have developed such careful and ornate theological statements. Heretics helped shape our theology of Christ.
Our theology of Christ must, of course, be biblical. But at the risk of being misunderstood, it must be said that the Bible does not deliver systematic theology. The Bible delivers Spirit-inspired truth. That biblical data must be organised and harmonised, which is the work of systematic theology. And heretics have played an important role in that organisation, by helping us to recognise the borders and boundaries of what the biblical data reveal about Christ.
Very early, within the lifetime of the apostle John, the Docetists claimed that the Christ simply appeared to have a human form, but did not have one in reality, that Jesus was not a true man in the flesh. Around the same time, the Cerinthians taught that the human Jesus was distinct from the Christ spirit. The Christ spirit came upon the fully (and merely) human Jesus at his baptism.
One of the first Hebrew heresies was Ebionism: the Jesus was a man who had kept the Law perfectly, and God rewarded him by calling him ‘anointed’.
By the third century, another two heresies appeared. One was Adoptionism – that Jesus was only a man, but He was adopted by God at His baptism. A second was Sabellianism – the idea that God manifested Himself in three modes, but not in three persons.
The heresies came to full bloom in the fourth and fifth centuries. Arianism taught that Jesus was the first creation of God. Apollinarianism taught that Jesus was a mixture of divine and human, with the Logos replacing the human soul of Jesus.
In the fifth century, Nestorianism split the natures into virtually two persons, denying that Mary bore the Person who is God. Eutychianism taught that the human nature of Jesus was virtually absorbed and overwhelmed by the divine nature. Later, in the sixth century, Monophysites would teach that Jesus had only one nature, a divine one. Monothelites would deny that Jesus had a human will alongside the one will He has within the Trinity.
As these heresies developed, the church needed to respond. As security systems become more advanced with more sophisticated criminals, so the church’s statements about Christ developed from the “faithful saying” of 1 Timothy 3:16, to the Apostles’ Creed (A. D. 250), to the more developed Nicene Creed (A. D. 325 and 381). By the fifth century, we have the very precise statements of the Formula of Chalcedon (A. D. 451) and the Athanasian Creed (c. A. D. 500).
We, then, following the holy Fathers, all with one consent, teach men to confess one and the same Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, the same perfect in Godhead and also perfect in manhood; truly God and truly man, of a rational soul and body; consubstantial with the Father according to the Godhead, and consubstantial with us according to the Manhood; in all things like unto us, without sin; begotten before all ages of the Father according to the Godhead, and in these latter days, for us and for our salvation, born of the Virgin Mary, the Mother of God, according to the Manhood; one and the same Christ, Son, Lord, only begotten, to be acknowledged in two natures, inconfusedly, unchangeably, indivisibly, inseparably; the distinction of natures being by no means taken away by the union, but rather the property of each nature being preserved, and concurring in one Person and one Subsistence, not parted or divided into two persons, but one and the same Son, and only begotten, God the Word, the Lord Jesus Christ; as the prophets from the beginning have declared concerning Him, and the Lord Jesus Christ Himself has taught us, and the Creed of the holy Fathers has handed down to us.
For the right faith is, that we believe and confess, that our Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, is God and man; God, of the substance of the Father, begotten before the worlds; and man of the substance of his mother, born in the world; perfect God and perfect man, of a rational soul and human flesh subsisting. Equal to the Father, as touching His godhead; and inferior to the Father, as touching His manhood; who, although He is God and man, yet he is not two, but one Christ; one, not by conversion of the godhead into flesh but by taking of the manhood into God; one altogether; not by confusion of substance, but by unity of person. For as the rational soul and flesh is one man, so God and man is one Christ.
Thank you, heretics, one and all.