Erroneous Views Concerning the Person of Christ

L Boettner

In order that we may keep more clearly in mind the true doctrine concerning the person of Christ it may be helpful to make a brief survey of the erroneous views that have emerged during the course of Church history. As we have stated at the very beginning of this study, the first question that must be settled by any one professing to be a Christian is, “What think ye of the Christ?” (Matt. 22:42) ; and as that question is answered the truth or falsity of that person’s Christianity becomes evident. As a matter of historical record the full statement concerning the person of Christ was arrived at only after protracted and violent controversies, during the course of which every possible interpretation of the biblical data was examined, its elements of truth sifted out and preserved while the elements of error which deformed it were exposed and discarded.


The earliest heretical view concerning the person of Christ was that known as “Ebionism.” In the interests of a supposedly pure monotheism the Ebionites denied the Deity of Christ and held that He was merely a man on whom the Spirit of God rested in its fulness. God and man were regarded as always external to each other. It denied the possibility of a union of the divine and the human nature and so ruled out the doctrine of the Incarnation. Some Ebionites acknowledged His supernatural birth, while others rejected it and held that His baptism marked the time at which He was especially endowed with the Holy Spirit. All agreed that after His death He was exalted to kingship. But this means that they acknowledged Him only as a great prophet or teacher during His earthly career and so definitely a part of the creaturely existence,–all of which in turn means that the worship paid Him by the Church was simply idolatry. They held that the old Jewish law was still obligatory upon the Lord’s people, Hence their system appears to have been simply Judaism within the pale of the Christian Church.


Chronologically, the next important error to develop concerning the person of Christ was Docetism. This term was derived from the Greek word dokeo, meaning to “seem,” or to “appear.” While the Ebionites believed that Christ had only a human nature, the Doceti held precisely the opposite error, asserting that He had only a divine nature and that His appearance in this world was only an illusion, or, more correctly, a theophany. According to this view He did not have a real human body and therefore could not have had a real human life. This meant further that He suffered no real pain and died no real death.

This peculiar belief was based on the philosophical assumption that matter is inherently evil. Since Christ was acknowledged to be altogether pure they could not admit that He was in any way connected with a physical body. Docetism was therefore simply pagan philosophy within the Church. It appeared quite early, about the year A. D. 70, and continued for approximately a century. The Patripassion and Sabellian heresies which appeared later may well be considered sects of the Docetic heresy since they too denied any real humanity in Christ.

The Scripture refutation of Docetism is found in John’s declaration that “The Word became flesh, and dwelt among us (and we beheld His glory, glory as of the only begotten from the Father), full of grace and truth,” 1:14; and also in the unequivocal statement of Heb. 2:14: “Since then the children are sharers in flesh and blood, He also Himself in like manner partook of the same.” Incidentally we may add that the early appearance of Docetism with its strong emphasis on the Deity of Christ is eloquent testimony showing that the impression made upon those who saw and heard Him in the flesh was that He was a supernatural being.


A third error that arose in the early Church, more serious than either of the preceding ones, was Arianism. This view denied the true Deity of Christ and held rather that He occupied a position somewhere between that of God and man, that He was the first created being and the creator of all other creatures. He was thus regarded not as possessing absolute Deity, but only as the highest of created beings. Because of the claims which He made, the authority which He assumed, the miracles He worked, and the glory He displayed particularly in His resurrection, the great majority of the early Christians recognized Him as truly God. The Arians, however, misinterpreted certain Scripture statements relating to His state of humiliation and assumed that temporary subordination to the Father meant original and permanent inequality. Origen, the most outstanding of the early church fathers, in connection with his doctrine of the eternal generation of the Son, had taught inherent subordination. Arius carried this idea much farther and declared that the generation of the Son had taken place in time, thus definitely making Him a creature.

This controversy was brought to a head in the early part of the fourth century by the teaching of Arius, a presbyter in the Church at Alexandria, Egypt. Because of the widespread difference of opinion concerning the person of Christ an Ecumenical Council was called by the first Christian Emperor, Constantine, for the purpose of formulating a general doctrine which should be accepted by the whole Church. The council met in the year 325, at Nicaea, in Asia minor, and was attended by bishops and presbyters from practically all parts of the empire. The real controversy centered around the question as to whether Christ was to be considered as truly God, or as only the first and greatest creature. The Arians maintained that Christ was not eternal, that He was created by the Father out of nothing and was therefore the first and highest of all creatures, that He in turn created the world, and that because of the power delegated to Him He is to be looked upon as God and is to be worshiped. He was, therefore, to be called God only by courtesy, in much the same way that we give a Lieutenant Governor the title of Governor. His pre-eminence was due to the fact that He alone was created immediately by God and that supernatural power was given to Him, while all other creatures were created by Him. Most of the Arians also held that the Holy Spirit was the first and greatest of the creatures called into existence by His power. All of this meant, of course, a God who had a beginning, and who might therefore have an end; for a creature, no matter how highly exalted, must ever remain finite. Hence the Arians, in demanding worship of Christ, were in fact asserting the central principle of heathenism and idolatry, the worship of a creature.

The Arians asserted that Christ was not of the same substance (homo-ousia) with the father, but of similar substance (homoi-ousia). We may be tempted today to wonder how the whole Christian world could have been convulsed over the rejection of a single letter of the alphabet; but in reality the absence or the presence of the iota signified the difference between a Savior who is truly God and one who is only a creature,–between a Christianity which is able to save the souls of men and one which can not. In the Council of Nicaea the Church faced what we believe to have been the greatest crisis in the entire history of doctrine. It was, however, in effect, although in a slightly different form, the same question that it faces in the twentieth century dispute between the Evangelical Faith and Modernism.

The noble champion of the orthodox cause was Athanasius, who later became Bishop of Alexandria. Under His influence the Council declared for the full and eternal Deity of Christ, who was declared to be “God of God, Light of Light, Very God of Very God, being of one substance with the Father.” Opposition continued strong for some time after the Council had made this pronouncement, but under the zealous and skillful leadership of Athanasius the doctrine gradually won official acceptance by the entire Church. It was seen that a created Christ was not the Christ of the New Testament, nor could He be the Christ who, by His death and resurrection, became the Author of eternal salvation.


The next error that the Church had to face concerning the person of Christ was that of Apollinarianism. This system denied the completeness of His human nature. It acknowledged His true Deity, and also that He possessed a real body and a soul which would continue after death; but it denied that He had a truly human mind, i.e., a reasoning mind that reached conclusions through mental processes as do ours. It asserted in effect that He was simply God masquerading in human flesh, and that ignorance, weakness, obedience, worship, suffering, etc., were to be predicated of the Logos, that is, of the Deity or Divine nature as such. If, by way of comparison, we can imagine a man’s mind implanted in the body of a lion and the lion thereafter governed not by lion or animal psychology but by a human mind we shall have something analogous to what the Apollinarian system set forth concerning the incarnation of Christ. Apollinarius was a tricotomist, and his system was based on the assumption that there were three elements in man’s nature: a material body, an immortal soul, and a reasoning mind. We believe, however, that man is composed of only two elements, body and soul, and that the mind with which man reasons in this life is the same as the soul or spirit which lives on after death. Hence it is evident that, reduced to dicotomist terms, Apollinarianism granted Christ a human body but not a complete human soul. But if Christ was to have a real incarnation it was necessary that He add to His divine nature not merely a human body but also a human mind or soul; for humanity consists not merely in the possession of a body but of a body and soul. Apollinarianism was plainly an inconsistent explanation of the person of Christ, and it was condemned by the Council of Constantinople in the year 381.


Another error that had a widespread influence in the early Church, ranking next to Arianism in importance and even resulting in a considerable portion of the Church splitting off from the main body, was that of Nestorianism. The error of Nestorius was that he carried the dual nature of Christ too far. This gave Christ a double personality, two natures and two persons instead of two natures and one person. Christ was thus regarded as a man in very close union with God, and Nestorius’ favorite analogy to explain the person of Christ was that of the union of the believer with Christ. This, however, gave us not an incarnate God but only a deified man,-one who came from below, not from above. Far from giving us a real incarnation, this system gave us only an alliance between God and a man. Somewhat after the fashion of the Siamese twins, Chang and Eng, God and man were joined together.

We have insisted repeatedly, of course, that Christ is an unique person, that in Him true Deity and true humanity are joined to form one person, and that He is as truly God as is God the Father and as truly man as we are. But we have also pointed out that there is nothing in Scripture to indicate that He was conscious of a double personality. It was not a man but manhood, that is, impersonal generic human nature, that He took into union with Himself. Since He had two natures He also had two wills, the human, however, being always in perfect harmony with and subordinate to the divine. This latter aspect of His personality was best illustrated in His prayer, “Not my will but thine be done.” We are thus able to distinguish, but not to divide, the two natures in Christ. The chief error of the Nestorian system was that in separating the divine and the human natures in Christ it deprived His human sufferings of the value and efficacy that they must have if they are to be sufficient for the redemption of mankind. As we have pointed out earlier, only when His divine and human nature are organically and indissolubly united in one person can the acts of either nature have the value of both. Hence we are always to insist upon His true Deity, His true humanity, and the unity of His person.


Perhaps the most peculiar of all of the Christological heresies was that of Eutychianism. This teaching denied the distinction between the divine and the human nature and held that the two were fused to form a third which was neither divine nor human. Christ was thus supposed to be neither God nor man, but possessed of a nature somewhere between the two. But since the divine nature was the greater it followed that for all practical purposes the human was really absorbed into the divine, but with the effect that the divine was also somewhat changed. Eutyches held that two natures implied two persons. Hence he acknowledged in Christ but one life, one intelligence, and one will. Since Eutychianism denied the human element in Christ it denied the real union of God and man and therefore the possibility of an atonement through the human nature. This blending or fusing of the two natures was, of course, the precise opposite of the Nestorian heresy which had so divided the natures as to give a double personality. Eutychianism was too unstable to gain a large following and it was condemned by the Council of Chalcedon in the year 451.

In conclusion, then, we would point out that the orthodox doctrine of the person of Christ has been the common heritage of the Church since the Council of Chalcedon, 451 A. D. It is not a doctrine that was easily arrived at, but one that was worked out only after long and patient study of the Scriptures and after lively debate in the church councils. Numerous other solutions were tried and found wanting. But in this the Church found rest and has continued to rest until our own day. In it alone, it is safe to say, do the Scripture representations of Christ as God and also as man find harmonious adjustment. “To the onlooker from this distance of time,” says Dr. Warfield, “the main line of the progress of the debate takes on an odd appearance of a steady zigzag advance. Arising out of the embers of the Arian controversy, there is first vigorously asserted, over against the reduction of our Lord to the dimensions of a creature, the pure Deity of His spiritual nature (Apollinarianism) ; by this there is at once provoked, in the interests of the integrity of our Lord’s humanity, the equally vigorous assertion of the completeness of His human nature as the bearer of His Deity (Nestorianism); this in turn provokes, in the interest of the oneness of His person, an equally vigorous assertion of the conjunction of these two natures in a single individuum (Eutychianism) : from all of which there gradually emerges at last, by a series of corrections, the balanced statement of Chalcedon, recognizing at once in its ‘without confusion, without conversion, eternally and inseparably’ the union in the person of Christ of a complete Deity and a complete humanity, constituting a single person without prejudice to the continued integrity of either nature. The pendulum of thought had swung back and forth in ever-decreasing arcs, until at last it found rest along the line of action of the fundamental force. Out of the continuous controversy of a century there issued a balanced statement in which all the elements of the biblical representation were taken up and combined. Work so done is done for all time; and it is capable of ever-repeated demonstration that in the developed doctrine of the Two Natures and in it alone, all the biblical data are brought together in a harmonious statement, in which each receives full recognition, and out of which each may derive its sympathetic exposition. This key unlocks the treasures of the biblical instruction on the person of Christ as none other can, and enables the reader as he currently scans the sacred pages to take up their declarations as they meet him, one after the other, into an intelligently consistent conception of his Lord.” (Christology and Criticism, p. 264).

The foregoing survey of the erroneous views concerning the person of Christ would seem to show that history has exhausted the possibilities of heresy and that future denials of the doctrine must be, in essence, only variations of views which have already been advanced and refuted. For, as Dr. A. H. Strong says, “All controversies with regard to the person of Christ must, of necessity, hinge on one of the three points: first, the reality of the two natures; secondly, the integrity of the two natures; thirdly, the union of the two natures in one person. Of these points, Ebionism and Docetism deny the reality of the two natures; Arianism and Apollinarianism deny their integrity; while Nestorianism and Eutychianism deny their proper union. In opposition to all these errors, the orthodox doctrine held its ground and maintains it to this day.” (Systematic Theology, p, 672). And there is much truth in the comment of Dr. A. P. Peahody made in another connection to the effect that “The canon of infidelity was closed almost as soon as that of the Scriptures,”–modern unbelievers having done little more than repeat the long exploded heresies of former centuries. From its earliest origin the Church has believed in both the Deity and the humanity of Christ. Only in the outlawed and comparatively insignificant Ebionite and Docetic sects do we find a belief in a one-natured Christ. Not until the rise of Socinianism in the sixteenth century do we find an important defection from the Church doctrine; and that was in substance a recrudescence of the ancient Ebionite heresy which denied the Deity of Christ. Present day Unitarianism and Modernism, which are essentially denials of the supernatural in religion, trace their origin back to that same movement.

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