Below is a list of the major heresies that the church dealt with in the first centuries of the church. These false teachings show that the church encountered and rejected every possible combination of denying Jesus’ real nature. The church dealt with teachings about whether Jesus had one nature or two, was created or eternal, was physical or spirit, In the end, the standard statements on Jesus’ nature were defined at the Council of Nicea in 325 AD and the Council of Chalcedon in 451 AD.
The orthodox view of Jesus was taught from the very first, but written clearly in the ecumenical councils in the first centuries. Most notable are the following, first from the Council of Nicea in 325:
We believe in one God the Father Almighty, Maker of all things visible and invisible; and in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only begotten of the Father, that is, of the substance of the Father, God of God, light of light, true God of true God, begotten not made, of the same substance with the Father, through whom all things were made both in heaven and on earth; who for us men and our salvation descended, was incarnate, and was made man, suffered and rose again the third day, ascended into heaven and cometh to judge the living and the dead. And in the Holy Ghost. Those who say: There was a time when He was not, and He was not before He was begotten; and that He was made out of nothing; or who maintain that He is of another hypostais or another substance, or that the Son of God is created, or mutable, or subject to change, the Catholic Church anathematizes.
Also notable is the Council of Chalcedon in 451, which said:
. . . at once complete in Godhead and complete in manhood, truly God and truly man…recognized in two natures, without confusion, without change, without division, without separation, the distinction of the natures being in no way annulled by the union.
The heresies about Jesus are as follows. (references in parenthesis are cited at the end)
- Denied the deity of Christ and the virgin birth
- Taught that believers must be circumcised and keep the law
- Rejected the writings of Paul
- Jesus started as a mere man who was exceptional at keeping the law
- Jesus’ purpose was not to suffer and die
The Ebionites died out after a major Roman army attacked Jerusalem in about 135 AD.
(HCD, 44; Cairns, 97-98)
- Denied the virgin birth.
- Held to a type of mysticism, regarding Jesus variously as a spirit being, the ideal Adam, or the highest archangel.
- Some practiced astrology and magic.
- Ritual washings were said to have a magical cleansing and ability to reconcile us to God.
The apostles spoke against this teaching in Colossians and 1 Timothy.
Modalism (Modal Monarchianism, Sabellianism or Patripassianism)
- Denied the Trinity.
- Held that the name of God is “Jesus.” At various times Jesus was the Father, the Son, and now as the Holy Spirit.
- Taught that Jesus was created and is not God.
- Held that at one point Jesus did not exist, then had a beginning point when he was created.
- (DOCC, 43; McGrath, 254)
The result was that Arius and his followers were excommunicated at the council of Nicea in 325. Today this view is held by the Jehovah’s Witnesses (The Watchtower Bible and Tract Society)
- While holding to both the deity and humanity of Christ, they denied the unity of the two natures into one person.
- Taught a type of connection between the two natures of Christ so that the divine nature came upon or connected to the human in a mechanical way.
- (HCD, 104; Cairns 136)
Nestorius and his followers were excommunicated at the council of Ephesus in 431.
- Taught that Christ was two natures before the incarnation but one nature after.
- Combined the two natures of Christ into one nature.
- This heresy results in Jesus being some third thing other than pure man and pure God.
- (HCD, 106; Cairns, 136)
This view was excommunicated from Christianity at the council of Chalcedon in 451. The followers went to Egypt and formed Coptic churches which still hold this position today.
- Held that Jesus’ physical body was not real.
- Jesus only appeared to suffer and die, but did not physically do so.
- (Cairns, 98)
This heresy appeared within the lifetimes of the apostles. The apostle John condemned it directly in 1 John.
- Apollinaris (d.392) taught that Christ the logos took the place of the human soul and mind.
- Said that “The Word himself has become flesh without having assumed a human mind. . . but which exists as an immutable and heavenly divine mind.” (McGrath, 257)
Apollinaris and his followers were condemned at Constantinople in 381.
- Several very different types of Gnosticism arose.
- The Judaizing type held that Jesus was a mere man, not virgin born, whom the Christ Spirit descended.
- Some types held that Jesus was not truly physical.
- Some types held that Jesus was a sub-god, below the highest god but above humanity.
The apostles spoke against this in some of their writings in the New Testament.
HCD: Berkhof, Louis, The History of Christian Doctrines. Grand Rapids, Mich., Baker Book House, 1975.
Cairns: Cairns, Earl E., Christianity Through The Centuries. Revised and Enlarged ed., Grand Rapids, Mich., Academie Books, 1981.
McGrath: McGrath, Alister E., The Christian Theology Reader. 2nd ed., Blackwell Publishers, 2001.
DOCC: Bettenson, Henry, and Maunder, Chris, eds., Documents of the Christian Church. 3rd edition, Oxford University Press, 1999.