“If you watch Christian television for one day you will hear taught every major heresy from the early church period.”

R. C. Sproul

“In the early church, heresy did not refer to simply any doctrinal disagreement, but to something that seemed to undercut the very basis for Christian existence.”

Harold O. J. Brown, Heresies: Heresy and Orthodoxy in the Early Church, Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1988. p. 2.

Heresy or Disagreement?

As we have written blogs on “The Difference,” we have been very careful up until this point not to use the word “heresy” to describe disagreements that Venture Church might have with some beliefs from other churches. The distinction between a disagreement and a heresy is very important because it often delineates the line between a brother and sister in Christ and someone who worships a different god altogether. 

Warnings from Scripture

Heresy is not a new problem. In fact, it is a major concern of the apostles as they wrote the New Testament epistles to the first-century church. Here is a sample of their warnings about heresy.

For such men are false apostles, deceitful workmen, disguising themselves as apostles of Christ. 14 And no wonder, for even Satan disguises himself as an angel of light. 15 So it is no surprise if his servants, also, disguise themselves as servants of righteousness. Their end will correspond to their deeds.

1 Corinthians 11:13-15

But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed. 

Galatians 1:8

But false prophets also arose among the people, just as there will be false teachers among you, who will secretly bring in destructive heresies, even denying the Master who bought them, bringing upon themselves swift destruction. 

1 Peter 2:1

Who is the liar but he who denies that Jesus is the Christ? This is the antichrist, he who denies the Father and the Son. 23 No one who denies the Son has the Father. Whoever confesses the Son has the Father also.

1 John 2:22-23

7 For many deceivers have gone out into the world, those who do not confess the coming of Jesus Christ in the flesh. Such a one is the deceiver and the antichrist.

2 John 7

The Person of Jesus

While a heresy could theoretically be any teaching that undercuts the very existence of the church, almost all heresies are false teachings about the very nature of Jesus Christ as the Son of God. This makes perfect sense. The church’s foundation is the Gospel of Jesus Christ. The core of that Gospel is the birth, life, death, burial, resurrection, ascension, and coming again of Jesus as the eternal Christ and Son of God. To remove the person of Jesus is to remove the object of faith from the faith. A Christianity that follows a God (Father, Son, Holy Spirit) that is not the God of Scripture is no Christianity at all.

Ecumenical Councils

Heresies were so commonplace and destructive to the unity of the early church that there was seen a need to establish ecumenical (worldwide) councils to define which Christ is at the core of the Christian faith. The very first of those ecumenical councils was Nicaea in 325 to resolve a dispute between followers of Arius, who held to a Jesus who was less than fully God, and the orthodox Christians, led by Alexander and Athanasius of Alexandria. It also came on the heels of some major disputes in the third century around Monarchianism (oneness theology), which denies the eternal distinct persons of the Trinity.

 The creed adopted at Nicaea still stands at the center of how we define true expressions of Christianity from false ones. 

The Nicene Creed

I believe in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth, and of all things visible and invisible.

And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God, begotten of the Father before all worlds; God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God; begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father, by whom all things were made.

Who, for us men for our salvation, came down from heaven, and was incarnate by the Holy Spirit of the virgin Mary, and was made man; and was crucified also for us under Pontius Pilate; He suffered and was buried; and the third day He rose again, according to the Scriptures; and ascended into heaven, and sits on the right hand of the Father; and He shall come again, with glory, to judge the quick and the dead; whose kingdom shall have no end.

And I believe in the Holy Ghost, the Lord and Giver of Life; who proceeds from the Father [and the Son]; who with the Father and the Son together is worshipped and glorified; who spoke by the prophets.
And I believe one holy catholic and apostolic Church. I acknowledge one baptism for the remission of sins; and I look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come. Amen.

Unifying the Faith

When we speak of Roman Catholic and most Protestant Christians, the big rock that unites our faiths is that we are all “Nicene Christians.” This foundational view of Jesus is what allows our earlier posts to speak of differences within the Christian faith as opposed to different faiths altogether.

Modern Heresies

We need to pay attention to teachings that are common in today’s culture that fall outside of the statements about Jesus in the Nicene Creed. Mormonism, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and the sort of liberal Christology represented by the Jesus Seminar of the 1970s would be obvious examples of modern heresy. But Christians in America are much more commonly led astray by false views of Jesus that are brought forward by TV preachers.

Recently on Recharge, Austin and Jonathan discussed the kenosis, or the theory of emptying of Jesus of his deity when he took on flesh. This modern teaching falls outside of traditional orthodox teaching about Christ in an attempt to allow people to become gods like Jesus. The heresy finds its home in “Word-Faith” preaching and “Oneness” Pentecostalism.

For real-life examples of preachers like Kenneth Copeland who teach this sort of heresy, watch this clip from the documentary, American Gospel: Christ Alone.

These teachings represent departures from the Nicene Creed primarily in the second paragraph 

And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God, begotten of the Father before all worlds; God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God; begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father, by whom all things were made.

One Little Greek Vowel

The phrase “of one substance (homoousion) with the father” is key to understanding what sets an orthodox (Nicene) view of Christ apart from a heretical view. Many heretics in the fourth century wanted to say that Jesus was of similar substance (homoiousion). One Greek iota makes all the difference in Jesus being like God or fully God.

In response to heresies that would regard Jesus as merely a man, the church has maintained through the centuries that Jesus is not merely like God, but that he IS God in the flesh. In response to the oneness heresies of adoptionism and modalism, the church has always maintained that Jesus is begotten of the Father and maintains a relationship of eternal coexistence with the Father that is clearly demonstrated in the Gospels.

We must understand as a core of our faith the uniqueness of Jesus Christ as the only-begotten Son of God. We are not all sons of God in the same way that Jesus is: “begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father.”  

Why it Matters

Insisting on the identity of Jesus as put forward in the Nicene Creed (and the new Testament) is absolutely essential to the Christian faith. A Jesus who is merely like God does not have the perfection necessary to be a unique sacrifice for our sins. A Jesus who is not fully human, but merely appears to be human for a time cannot be the second Adam who God demands as payment for our sins. A modalist Jesus is not seated at the right hand of the Father interceding on our behalf.

In the future, we will talk about the Chalcedonian Creed. But for today we must understand that who we believe Jesus to be makes all THE DIFFERENCE.