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#1 Evangelion

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Posted 28 December 2002 - 07:04 AM

What is “heresy”? How did “heresy” and the “heretics” contribute to the life of the early Church?

The word “heresy” is defined as
A belief contrary to the authorized teaching of the religious community to which one ostensibly belongs. [1]
Although it is a term which might be applied to any religion, its association is strongest with the Christian Church, which, during its early days, struggled to arrive at a set of canonical writings and orthodox doctrines. By examining the various “heresies”, their sources, and the Church’s response to them, it is possible to develop an overview of the many influences which helped to form the belief system that we know today as “Christianity”.

The primary concern for the early Christian believers was the preservation of the teachings they had received from Jesus. This was particularly important during the formative years, as it soon became clear that the gospel message would not be conveniently centralised, but rather spread throughout the Roman Empire, which by now covered a vast area. As each new Christian community sprang up, it generated more work for the leaders of the Church, who were faced with the problem of ensuring that the essential doctrines and practices remained unchanged. However, in view of the difficulties involved in travel and long range communication, it was inevitable that some distortion would occur. Fledgling churches were very much reliant on the strength of the apostolic witnesses – those men who laid claim to a personal relationship with Jesus. But their influence could not be effectively maintained at a great distance.

The New Testament record contains evidence for the rise of several heresies during the first century AD. In his first letter to the Corinthians, the apostle Paul wrote:

Now I praise you, brethren, that ye remember me in all things, and keep the ordinances, as I delivered them to you… For first of all, when ye come together in the ecclesia, I hear that there be divisions among you; and I partly believe it, for there must be also heresies among you, that they which are approved may be made manifest among you. [2]

The influences which led to these early heresies, were many and varied. Christianity was born and raised within the nation of Israel, a multicultural centre which contained elements of Edomite, Samaritan, Egyptian, Hebrew and Roman culture. The most notable feature was the turmoil of warring sects. The Pharisees, or Separated, had arisen as a protest against the attempt in the Maccabean period to Hellenise Judaism. For a time they had been an element making for true religious advance, and they had actually developed the doctrine of the resurrection of the dead. But they had now degenerated into a body of fanatical formalists, who, though they rejected Hellenism, seem to have imbibed a good deal of Persian dualism, spiritism, and eschatology. [3]

In fierce opposition to the Pharisees were the Sadducees, who constituted the priestly and aristocratic party; the Herodians, a political party who had resigned themselves to the notion of Roman rule, and were keen to make it as bearable as possible; the Zealots, whose ideology constituted the exact opposite of the Herodians, and the Essenes, an ascetic group which had withdrawn from society and set up small communities in the desert. Jewish society then, was complicated by a multiplicity of beliefs, practices and warring cultural factions. It is inconceivable that, faced with such tremendous pressures from every side, Christianity could have remained untouched.

Two heresies which arose during the first century AD were Ebionism and Docetism, and together they represent two contrasting interpretations of the Christian message. The Ebionites were a Judaic school who taught that the principle goal of all Christians is poverty and humility – but their distinguishing tenet was a rejection of the divine sonship of Jesus. While they accepted him as Messiah, they believed him to be the son of Joseph and Mary, making him the greatest of the prophets but not giving him authority to abrogate the Law of Moses. Of the Christian writings they appear to have used only the Gospel of Matthew, and their doctrinal emphases demonstrate the legacy of a deeply entrenched Judaism. [4]

In stark contrast, the Docetics taught that while Jesus was truly God, his appearance as a man was merely phantasmal. Their chief influence appears to have been Greek philosophical thought. Both the Ebionist and Docetic heresies were succeeded by Elkesaitism, which retained most of the Judaic traditions as given by Moses whilst retaining the notion of Jesus as Messiah. The Elkasaites saw Jesus not as a new creation, but as a reincarnated Adam, and as further reincarnations were possible Christianity could not be looked upon as the final religion. [5]

These early heretical movements seem to indicate that Christianity was being adapted to suit the various cultures with which it came into contact. The Ebionites clearly reflect a preference for Mosaic superiority, while the Docetics and Elkasaites were more concerned with the philosophical implications of Christianity.

Gnostic teaching was also extremely influential, especially during the second half of the 1st century AD. It emerged in three different forms, each of which borrowed from the Judaic and Christian traditions, whilst incorporating elements of Syrian, Greek and Egyptian thought. The first of these three forms may be dated from Saturninus, who taught at Antioch in the time of Trajan. The world, according to him, was made by seven angels, of whom the God of the Jews was one. It contains, however, a spark of life from the Father. The Saviour, who had no human birth or body, came down to assist the good, who possess this spark, against the evil, who are assisted by the demons. Salvation is by asceticism; marriage and the union of the sexes being the work of Satan. [6]

The second great centre of Gnostic teaching was Alexandria, where the mixture was more predominantly Platonic than elsewhere. Here, the philosopher Carpocrates taught his followers that the original plan of the Supreme had been perverted by His angels, who had introduced the Law with all its distinctions between good and evil, and mine and thine. Carpocrates’ Gnosticism appears to have been a sort of spiritual communism, in which life is best lived by having all things – including women – in common, and ignoring the differences between moral and immoral actions. Under this intriguing system, salvation comes by the constant transmigration of the soul until it has run through the whole gamut of possible wickedness. Consequently, Carpocrates’ followers demonstrated a moral obliquity which contemporary Christians found to be utterly abhorrent.

These first two schools of Gnostic were to some extent tolerated by the early Church. Indeed, they shared with Christianity a belief in the redemption through Christ. But the Gnostics thought that the ordinary facts of the life of Christ as taught in the Church were only the vulgar conceptions that concealed the truth. Their own dualism precluded any belief that God could really become man. In fact that was the real difficulty; granted both a spiritual and a material universe, how could the one be the source of the other? Not by direct contact, that was evident; for the one was altogether good while the other was altogether evil. Therefore between God, who is absolute spirit, and man, who is of the earth, earthy, there must be a number of gradations in being, becoming less spiritual and more material as the steps descend from the higher to the lower level.

Like some theosophists of the present day, people with such views found no great difficulty in remaining within the Church. After all, they were denying no Christian teaching, only giving it a more scientific explanation. But in reality they had little in common with the Church of their day. Their aim was intellectual enlightenment rather than moral life; their desire freedom from the bondage of matter rather than from the corruption of sin; their system a philosophy rather than a religion. Ultimately they realised the incompatibility of their teaching with the Church, and began to form sects of their own. [7]

The first to organise a distinct Gnostic body was Marcion, whom Polycarp identified by the title ‘first-born of Satan’. [8] To him the key to all mysteries was to be found in the Pauline antithesis between grace and works. He wrote a book with the title Antitheses, the object of which was to expose the incompatibility of the Law and the Gospel. According to his theology, there are two Gods – the supreme God of the New Testament and the inferior God of the Old. Jesus, as agent of the good God, came to destroy the work of the Old Testament Demiurge. Subscribing to the Docetic view, Marcion taught that Jesus was simply a manifestation of the true God, without any actual birth or death.

The openness of Marcion’s efforts to recruit members to his movement, led quickly to a breach with the Church of Rome. At this point the Marcionites resolved themselves into a separate sect, which spread throughout the Empire. The Christian sacraments were retained with a difference, the married being excluded from baptism and water taking the place of wine in the Eucharist. The Marcionite scriptures were few and select. The whole of the Old Testament was rejected along with a good part of the New. The Gospel of Luke without the initial stories was regarded as the Gospel, and the Pauline epistles without the Pastorals completed the canon. The importance of Marcion may be judged by the vehemence with which most of the Church Fathers attacked him.

One of the most interesting heretical disputes in the 4rd century AD arose over the notion of the Trinity - a slowly-developing doctrine which was gradually insinuating itself into Christian teaching. The origins of Trinitarian teaching are curious – not least because they are unBiblical.

The foundations upon which Trinitarian thought was based, appear to have emerged during the 1st century AD in the writings of Philo, a leader of the Alexandrian Jewish community.

Philo realised that Middle Platonism [9] had important similarities to the Jewish scriptures in its doctrines about God and the world. The personified Wisdom of Judaism was close enough to the cosmic mediator to allow Philo to accept this feature of Middle Platonism, which he called Logos. [10] Like Wisdom, Philo’s Logos is a personified power of God, the exact understanding of which is disputed among scholars. After AD 70, Philo had little influence within Judaism, but he directly influenced some Christian writers, and his general approach to the theological use of Middle Platonism recurs in Christianity. [11]

From about AD 150, Christian writers refer the Logos idea to Christ, designating him as the ordering principle of the cosmos and its telos; the end to which it is ordered. The Holy Spirit had no organic place in the Logos idea, and the distinction of persons in the Godhead is affirmed only in relation to the creation, so that one might infer that it depends on the creation at least in an anticipatory way. By the time of the later 2nd century AD, this Christological innovation was being expressed in a bold and confident manner.

Bishop Irenaeus of Lyons balanced the Logos doctrine with a fuller emphasis on three identities in the Godhead. His work demonstrated that improvements in the formulation of doctrine were being made. Below is Iranaeus’ statement regarding the nature of Christ:

So God became man, and the Lord Himself saved us, giving us the sign of the Virgin, but not as suggested by some who in our day venture to translate the text thus: ‘Lo, the young woman shall be with child and bear a son’, as it was translated by Theodotion of Ephesus and Aquila of Pontus, both Jewish proselytes, followed by the Ebionites, who argue that He was Joseph’s child.
Having now taken the new doctrine on board, the Church was obliged to defend it against alternative interpretation – and this was not long in coming. The Trinity was expressed in a variety of ways by two basic schools of thought – the pluralistic and the economic. Each contained an element of orthodoxy, but each might be pushed to an impossible extreme. The danger was particularly pressing for those who stressed the economic view. Its extreme upholders were called Monarchians because they believed in only one fount of being. There were two opposed sections of them, and representatives of both appeared and clamoured for recognition at Rome. The one section consisted of Modalist Monarchians and the other of Adoptionist Monarchians. [12]

The Adoptionists believed that Christ was a man who had received the Spirit of God, performed His will and been adopted into the Godhead after his resurrection. The Modalists believed that there were no permanent distinctions within the Godhead but only three temporary phases in the operation of one divine Person. Thus the one God acted as Father in creation, Son in redemption and Spirit within the world and man. But when the need for these modes or phases of activity was passed the Godhead assumed its undifferentiated character once more. This teaching had the advantage of preserving the full divinity of Christ, which seemed to be endangered by the Adoptionists, but it had the paradoxical result of making it appear that God sat on His own right hand. It also meant that the Father Himself must have died on the cross.

The impact of these teachings upon the Church was largely political. Pope Zephyrinus welcomed Modalism as an aid in defending the faith against the Adoptionists – while at the same time Hippolytus was vehemently attacking both types of Monarchianism. Since the Trinity debate never actually left the Church but merely resurfaced in new guises, it is evident that even definitive statements like Irenaeus’ were not universally accepted by the clergy. The Church had made a crucial doctrinal shift from Jesus as a divinely conceived human who became immortal (but did not become a part of the Godhead after his immortalisation) to Jesus as a member of the Godhead who came to Earth, “died” and returned to the Godhead. It was not an easy teaching to accept, and reinterpretations were numerous.

The Church’s response to heresies varied from place to place, but a common response was found in the writings of Iranaeus of Lyons and Eusebius of Caesarera. Both sought to reestablish the credibility of the Church by demonstrating that it consisted of unbroken teachings leading back to the time of Jesus’ ministry, but they went about it in slightly different ways. Irenaeus seems to have been more concerned with the validity of the ecclesiastical canon, while Eusebius decided to record the lines of succession from the apostles. In Book III of Against Heresies, Irenaeus writes:

Matthew published a written gospel for the Hebrews in their own tongue, while Peter and Paul were preaching the gospel in Rome and founding the church there. After their passing, Mark also, the disciple and interpreter of Peter, transmitted to us in writing the things preached by Peter. Luke, the follower of Paul, set down in a book the gospel preached by him. Lastly John, disciple of the Lord, who had leant back on His breast, once more set forth the gospel, while residing at Ephesus in Asia. [13]

Eusebius was keen to institutionalise the authority of the Church, for only by demonstrating that they had the only Christian tradition, could the bishops successfully combat heresy and denounce its followers. Christianity itself had already run the gauntlet of heretical accusations, offending the Jews, Greeks and Romans alike with its new and radical theology. The list of succession found in Eusebius’ history of the Church had been drawn up earlier; he simply made use of them. Hegesippus had made a succession list for the Church of Rome, and Irenaeus gives a succession list for the same Church in his Against Heresies; it is Irenaeus’ list that Eusebius follows.

These lists (as is evident from the way in which Irenaeus produces his list) were used as guarantees of the authenticity of the preaching of the Christian faith; they traced a line of succession back to Christ through one (or more) of the apostles (Peter – and sometimes Paul – in the case of Rome) who had appointed the first bishop in the place concerned. Orderly succession from the apostles was regarded as evidence of fidelity to the teaching of the apostles, and therefore of Christ who had appointed them. This idea is first explicitly found in Clement’s letter to the Corinthians; it is not unlike the idea of succession (diadoche) in the philosophical schools, seen as guaranteeing fidelity to the teaching of the founder of the school.

The Church came to lay great stress on such lines of succession during the struggle against gnosticism in the 2nd century, as the gnostics claimed to authenticate their own secret traditions by producing succession lists going back usually to one of the more obscure apostles (such as Matthias or Barnabas). Their original significance was not then historical but dogmatic. [14] In a similar way that the Church demonstrated the verity of its succession, it supported controversial doctrines such as the Trinity, by making an appeal to Biblical precedent. Eusebius in particular, was strident in his affirmation that the Trinity was not new, nor heretical, but had always been preached. Ironically, Eusebuis’ own understanding of the Trinity was not strictly orthodox – he saw Christ less as God than the first of His ministers. It was this subordinationism that put him amongst those who sided with Arius.

The influence of heresies upon the early Church resulted in a number of changes, both political and ideological. From her origins as a Christian sect practised within a non-hierarchical community she had grown into an institution with titles, authorities, councils and a wealth of new terminology. Heretical ideas forced an official response; no longer could the average Christian simply be content with a personal confession of faith, but he was now required to learn creeds, definitions and dogma which had not previously existed. Where heresies gained sufficient political support, as in the case of Arius, they could not easily be ignored; in time some of them, like the doctrine of the Trinity itself, were even adopted into the Church and defended as if they had always been a part of it. The most significant effect of heresy upon the early Church seems to have been the institutionalisation which arose to confront it – but with institutionalisation came a vast scaffolding of innovations which led the Church even further from her origins.

 
Bibliography

[1] The Chambers Dictionary, 1993, Chambers and Harrap.

[2] I Corinthians 11:1-2, 18-19. (King James Version, with my amendment of “church” to “ecclesia.")

[3] Wand, 1974, A History of the Early Chuch to A.D. 500, Methuen and Co., England.

[4] Markus, R. (1974), Christianity in the Roman World, Thames and Hudson, England.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Jaeger, W. (1961), Early Christianity and Greek Paideia, Harvard College, USA..

[7] Barrett, D. (1996), Sects, ‘Cults’ and Alternative Religions, Hutchinson, England.

[8] Markus, R. (1974), Christianity in the Roman World, Thames and Hudson, England.

[9] Middle Platonism was a philosophical movement which flourished in the period 100 BC – AD 200. It was a revival of Platonic philosophy that drew from Plato the idea of the cosmos as a copy of eternal forms, moulded by the Demiurge. Middle Platonism combined the ideas of a transcendent God with an eternal Mind, by identifying the Demiurge with a second divine being who is the mediator between the transcendent God and the cosmos.

[10] The term was occasionally used by philosophers for the “Second God”, but might also mean “word”, recalling the creative Word of God of the Jewish scriptures.

[11] Reynolds, S. (1977), The Christian Religious Tradition, Pauline Press, USA.

[12] Williamson, G. (1989), Eusebius – the History of the Church from Christ to Constantine, Penguin Classics, England.

[13] Wand, 1974, A History of the Early Chuch to A.D. 500, Methuen and Co., England.

[14] Williamson, G. (1989), Eusebius – the History of the Church from Christ to Constantine, Penguin Classics, England.
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#2 echad

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Posted 11 January 2003 - 07:00 PM

Evangelion,

We speak of the Platonic influence in the development of the Trinity - do you also see a significant hint of Gnosticism there? I have had Trinitarians tell me that not only was it impossible for Jesus to have sinned, but that he REALLY wasn't "tempted" either. (they differentiate between "testing" and the kind of temptation that we encounter with the flesh, despite the fact that it says that Jesus was "tempted in ALL POINTS as we are") Now this contention certainly smacks of Gnosticism to me...the Gnostics believing that Christ did not appear in the flesh, but was totally "divine" in nature? (correct me if I am not understanding the Gnostic contention properly) Trinitarian doctrine verbally assents that Christ "came in the flesh", but it's definition of him not being capable of being tempted as we are is in contradiction - just as in all phases of the Trinity doctrine, it says one thing but MEANS something else. (i.e. - God is one BUT he's 3...Christ was one person BUT he had "2 natures" etc.) :ph34r:

God bless,
Chris
"Today I saw a red-and-yellow sunset and thought, how insignificant I am! Of course, I thought that yesterday, too, and it rained" (Woody Allen)

#3 Evangelion

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Posted 11 January 2003 - 08:12 PM

echad -

We speak of the Platonic influence in the development of the Trinity - do you also see a significant hint of Gnosticism there?


I do, but I wouldn't go so far as to say that Trinitarianism is the result of a Gnostic influence.

I have had Trinitarians tell me that not only was it impossible for Jesus to have sinned, but that he REALLY wasn't "tempted" either. (they differentiate between "testing" and the kind of temptation that we encounter with the flesh, despite the fact that it says that Jesus was "tempted in ALL POINTS as we are")


Yes, well the big problem for Trinitarians, of course, is that they can't actually decide if he was or he wasn't! You will get conflicting opinions from different Trinitarians. It's all a bit of a muddle, really.

Now of course, Christadelphians cannot agree if the temptation of Christ was primarily internal or external - but that is irrelevant. The essential point is that we unanimously agree that he was tempted, and could have sinned.

Now this contention certainly smacks of Gnosticism to me...the Gnostics believing that Christ did not appear in the flesh, but was totally "divine" in nature? (correct me if I am not understanding the Gnostic contention properly) Trinitarian doctrine verbally assents that Christ "came in the flesh", but it's definition of him not being capable of being tempted as we are is in contradiction - just as in all phases of the Trinity doctrine, it says one thing but MEANS something else. (i.e. - God is one BUT he's 3...Christ was one person BUT he had "2 natures" etc.)


It does indeed smack of Gnosticism, but a closer (and more precise) parallel is the heresy of Docetism.

Many modern Trinitarians are actually Docetists. They just don't realise it. :ph34r:
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#4 Evangelion

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Posted 11 January 2003 - 08:19 PM

echad - this is an excerpt from an absolutely fascinating book entitled Honest to God, which was written in the 60s by J. A. T. Robinson (a former Anglican Bishop.) In it, he challenges the "traditional" view of Christ as "the God-man", and shows why such a concept is not only alien to Scripture, but totally absurd.

The doctrine of the Incarnation and Divinity of Christ is on any count central to the entire Christian message and crucial therefore for any reinterpretation of it. It is also the point where resistance to interpretation is likely to be at its maximum and where orthodoxy has its heaviest investment in traditional categories. This is true both at the level of technical theology, where any restatement must run the gauntlet of the Chalcedonian Definition and the Athanasian Creed, and at the popular level, where one will quickly be accused of destroying the Christmas story. But if it is necessary in our thinking about God to move to a position ‘beyond naturalism and supranaturalism’, this is no less important in our thinking about Christ. Otherwise we shall be shut up, as we have been hitherto, to an increasingly sterile choice between the two.

Traditional Christology has worked with a frankly supranaturalist scheme. Popular religion has expressed this mythologically, professional theology metaphysically. For this way of thinking, the Incarnation means that God the Son came down to earth, and was born, lived and died within this world as a man. From ‘out there’ there graciously entered into the human scene one who was not ‘of it’ and yet who lived genuinely and completely within it. As the God-man, he united in his person the supernatural and the natural: and the problem of Christology so stated is how Jesus can be fully God and fully man, and yet genuinely one person.

The orthodox ‘answer’ to this problem, as formulated in the Definition of Chalcedon,[1] is within its own terms unexceptionable – except that properly speaking it is not a solution but a statement of the problem. But as a correct statement, as ‘a signpost against all heresies’, it had, - and has – an irreplaceable value. ‘The Christological dogma saved the Church’, says Tillich, ‘but with very inadequate conceptual tools.’ [2]

To use an analogy, if one had to present the doctrine of the person of Christ as a union of oil and water, then it made the best possible attempt, which was to insist against all efforts to ‘confuse the substance’ that there were two distinct natures and against all temptation to break the unity that there was one indivisible person. It is not surprising, however, that in popular Christianity the oil and the water separated, and that one or the other came to the top. In fact, popular supranaturalistic Christology has always been dominantly docetic. That is to say, Christ only appeared to be a man or looked like a man: ‘underneath’ he was God.

John Wren-Lewis gives a vivid description of an extreme form of this in the working-class religion in which he was brought up:

"I have heard it said again and again that the ordinary person sees Jesus as a good man and no more. Modernist clergy hold it up as a reason why doctrines like that of the Virgin Birth will not appeal widely, while the Anglo-Catholic clergy urge that the ordinary man must be taught to recognise Jesus as more than a good man, but both agree in their estimate of where the ordinary man stands, and I am sure they are quite wrong, even today. Certainly up to the Second World War, the commonest vision of Jesus was not as a human being at all. He was a God in human form, full of supernatural knowledge and miraculous power, very much like the Olympian gods were supposed to be when they visited the earth in disguise." [3]

But even if such a view would be indignantly repudiated by orthodox Churchmen, and however much they would insist that Jesus was ‘perfect man’ as well as ‘perfect God’, still the traditional supranaturalistic way of describing the Incarnation almost inevitably suggests that Jesus was really God almighty walking about on earth, dressed up as a man. Jesus was not a man born and bred – he was God for a limited period taking part in a charade. He looked like a man, he talked like a man, he felt like a man, but underneath he was God dressed up – like Father Christmas. However guardedly it may be stated, the traditional view leaves the impression that God took a space-trip and arrived on this planet in the form of a man. Jesus was not really one of us; but through the miracle of the Virgin Birth he contrived to be born so as to appear one of us. Really he came from outside. [4]

I am aware that this is a parody, and probably an offensive one, but I think it is perilously near the truth of what most people – and I would include myself – have been brought up to believe at Christmas time. Indeed, the very word ‘incarnation’ (which, of course, is not a Biblical term) almost inevitably suggests it. It conjures up the idea of a divine substance being plunged in flesh and coated with it like chocolate or silver plating. And if this is a crude picture, substitute for it that of the Christmas collect, which speaks of the Son of God ‘taking our nature upon him’, or that of Wesley’s Christmas hymn, with its ‘veiled in flesh the Godhead see.’


 
Footnotes:

[1] Drawn up at the Council of Chalcedon in 451. The text is printed in Documents of the Christian Church, ed. H. Bettenson (1943), p. 7.

[2] Systematic Theology, vol. ii., p.161.

[3] They became Anglicans, p.165.

[4] For a powerful protest, even within the supranaturalist scheme of thought, that Jesus belonged, through and through, to the stuff of humanity, cf. Nels F. S. Ferré, Christ and the Christian (1958), Ch. II Cf. W. W. Pittenger, Proclaiming Christ Today (1962), p. 87: ‘There is no mortal salvation in telling men that Jesus is as an “intruder” from another world, who has not really shared our condition because, as an alien, he is not in fact one of us.’
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#5 echad

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Posted 12 January 2003 - 03:51 PM

The proposed "dual nature of Christ" is, in reality, "2 Jesus's" - ONE of which must qualify as "ANOTHER Jesus, whom we have not preached" (2Cor.11:4) We constantly hear that it was only the "humanity" of Christ that died on the cross, as if it were possible for a person to have "humanity" and not be a WHOLE "human person", but Paul makes it very clear that "we were reconciled to God by the DEATH of his SON" (Ro.5:10) The "Godman" equation doesn't allow that Jesus, the PERSON, died completely, while Paul states that WHOEVER the "SON" was, that PERSON "died".

If you are looking for REAL entertainment, get yourself a bag of popcorn and a Dr. Pepper and listen to a Trinitarian and a Oneness Pentecostal debate this issue - since they both believe in the "dual nature" but explain it differently - neither one can define exactly what they believe, and epithets of "heresy" will fly back and forth over the most incredible "hairsplitting". :ph34r:

Chris
"Today I saw a red-and-yellow sunset and thought, how insignificant I am! Of course, I thought that yesterday, too, and it rained" (Woody Allen)




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