Saturday, February 2, 2013

Ecumenism: Heresies, Part 2

Part 2.1 of an ongoing Bible study on ecumenism. See links to other lessons at the bottom of this post.
We began our series on Ecumenism last week by looking at the opening verse of the book of Acts, which is actually Luke's reference to his first account, the Gospel of Luke. In that gospel he “dealt with all that Jesus began to do and teach,” which lays the groundwork for the entire book of Acts, because it is actually the account of the continuing Acts of Jesus Christ through the Holy Spirit. This groundwork goes very deep, and we only had time to recount a few of the central doctrines that are taught in the gospels. And then began to identify certain heresies that we need to watch out for because if we don't they can destroy the faith of individuals, churches, and organizations. And once things reach that low point, it goes without saying that ecumenism is out of the picture, because “what fellowship does light have with darkness?” (2Co 6:14)

     One of the doctrines that distinguishes Christianity from all other religions is the affirmation of both the transcendence and immanence of God. We affirm that God is wholly other, set apart from creation by an unbridgeable gap (Isa 55:8-9), but we also affirm that God is near to us—He watches us, cares about us, and involves Himself in our lives. This synthesis of the transcendence and immanence of God is embodied perfectly in Christ, because in Him, both the divine and human natures exist in one person. To put it in another way that we are more familiar with, Christ is 100% God and 100% man. This doctrine is a non-negotiable of Christian faith, and we must seriously doubt the salvation of anyone who denies or twists it.
     Docetism – Jesus only appeared human. Like gnosticism, docetism is a broad category that refers to the belief that Jesus' body was either absent or illusory. It existed in Asia Minor by the late 2nd century and became popular in the 3rd among those committed to Greek philosophy.
  • Q: Does it matter whether Christ died as a human?
    • If Christ only appeared human, but was not actually human, then His redemptive work is undermined. If He did not die as a human being, then He did not resurrect as a human being, and He is not really the firstfruits of the resurrection from the dead (Col 1:18; 1Co 15:20). Also, if Christ's suffering was a sham, then there is no theological meaning to the suffering of the saints (Jn 15:20; Gal 6:17; Col 1:24).
     Apollinarianism – One half God, one half man. Apollinarius (4th cent.) was Bishop of Laodicea from 362 onward. He argued that
“The flesh, being dependent for its motions on some other principle of movement and action…is not of itself a complete living entity, but in order to become one enters into fusion with something else. So it united itself with the heavenly governing principle [the LogoV] and was fused with it…Thus out of the moved and the mover was compounded a single living entity—not two, nor one compound of two complete, self-moving principles.”
If this view were correct, then Christ did not have a human soul and mind, and was therefore not fully human.
     Nestorianism – Two natures, two persons. Nestorius was Bishop of Alexandria from 428 onward. He taught that Christ had two natures, the divine and the human, and that these two natures could not be united. Consequently, the Christ he believed in seemed to be two separate persons. He was anathematized and the Chalcedonian Creed was formulated in order to correct his teaching.
     The resistance against Nestorius revolved largely around his refusal to use the title theotokos ("mother of God") for Mary, because he believed that God as an eternal being could not be born. Instead, he preferred to use the title Cristotokos ("mother of Christ"), since he believed that Mary was the mother of the human nature of Christ. However, this was unacceptable to his opponents, who argued that the title theotokos came part and parcel with accepting the presence of both the divine and human nature in the single person of Christ. On the surface, it would seem that Evangelicals agree with Nestorius on this issue because we also shy away from calling Mary the “Mother of God.” After all, we have witnessed the consequences of this exaltation of Mary, to the point wherein Roman Catholics even call her the Co-Redemptrix! That being said, the greater error actually lay with Nestorius than with Cyril, because Nestorius' error was a direct denial of the personhood of Christ.
     Monophysitism – A third nature. Eutychus (378-454), who was in charge of the monastery at Constantinople, taught that the unity of the divine and human nature in Jesus at the incarnation resulted in a “third thing,” a third nature. Logically, this meant that Christ was neither God nor man, but a new kind of being!

     In order to combat the abovementioned heresies and clarify the Scriptural teachings about the union of the divine and human natures in the person of Christ, the Church formulated the Chalcedonian Creed. The creed said that Christ was
“to be acknowledged in two natures, without confusion, without change, without division, without separation; 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 in two persons, but one and the same Son, and only begotten, God the Word, the Lord Jesus Christ.”  
  • Q: Why is it so important to affirm the full divinity as well as the full humanity of Christ?
    • Christ is the only one qualified to mediate between God and man precisely because He is both fully God and fully man.

     The earliest heresies were actually recorded in the Bible, and they are against the redemptive work of Jesus Christ.
     Gnosticism. Gnosticism sought enlightenment by the obtaining of “secret knowledge” and thought of the soul as good and the body as evil, among other things. Because the gnostics thought of the body as evil, they despised the idea of resurrection. But that's exactly what Acts 1:3 tells us, right? “He presented himself alive to them after his suffering by many proofs, appearing to them during forty days and speaking about the kingdom of God.” And this is so important, as Paul explains in 1 Corinthians 15:
16 For if the dead are not raised, not even Christ has been raised. 17 And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. … 19 If in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied.”
     The Judaizers. They were converts from Judaism (particularly ex-Pharisees) that sought to impose Jewish law upon Gentile Christians. The book of Acts (Acts 15) and a portion of Paul's writings (ex. Romans and Galatians) record this heresy and the apostolic response. The Judaizers taught that Gentiles had to be circumcised and observe the Mosaic Law in order to be saved (Acts 15:5). The apostles corrected this teaching by reaffirming salvation by grace through faith in Christ, not by works (Acts 15:11; Gal 2:16).

     Pelagianism – the Holy Spirit downgraded. Pelagius (c.390-418) was monk who came to be respected in Rome as a moral reformer. His views were opposed vehemently by Augustine of Hippo, however, and were eventually condemned by the Council of Ephesus.
Pelagius denied that man was born sinful due to the Fall of Adam and Eve. He insisted that at birth, a person was a clean slate, with the ability to do either good or bad. However, a great majority of people choose to sin, and do so increasingly, thus becoming addicted to it and creating the appearance of sinful nature. Sinners could indeed be forgiven by faith in Christ, but after conversion the responsibility of obedience and sanctification rested primarily on the Christian.
     Pelagius said that there were some people who never sinned, and therefore merited heaven. This was, of course, pure speculation on his part.
Does God have the right to command man to do what he is morally incapable of doing? Augustine affirmed this in his prayer, “grant what You command, and command what You will.” Pelagius, however, dennounced this truth, saying that “To call a person to something he considers impossible does him no good.” (Letter to Demetrias, I) Instead, he said that God grace lay in the enabling of people to obey.
  • Q: Should we really consider Pelagianism a heresy? If so, why?
    • Pelagius insisted that people needed “the Spirit of grace” (Heb 10:29), but in fact his teaching was moralistic, not evangelical. God's grace was an ever-present reality that was to be formally acknowledged, but not sought out. His system had no place for spiritual regeneration (Jn 3:5-8; Rom 8:2), because man was not “dead in trespasses and sin” (Eph 2:1). In the place of the Spirit's “sealing” of believers for the day of redemption (Eph 4:30; 1:13; cf. Jud 1:24), Pelagius exalted the strength of the human will. Instead of calling Christians to “be filled with the Spirit” (Eph 5:18), Pelagius called them to exercise free will. Increasing Christlikeness in the believer was the fruit of moral choice, not as the “fruit of the Spirit” (Gal 5:22-23).
     Challenge. The Christian begins his spiritual life by the Holy Spirit, and continues walking by the Spirit. The Holy Spirit therefore has to have a considerable place in our theology and practical living. We see this clearly in the first two chapters of the book of Acts. We don't have time now, but we'll take a closer look at those chapters once we're done talking about heresies.

     The final type of heresy we'll discuss is heresy against Scripture. Although we're discussing this last, this may actually be the most dangerous kind of heresy of all, because it attacks the very source of all Christian knowledge.
     Marcion's Canon. In order to support his dualistic theology and anti-Semitic sentiments, Marcion created his own canon. This included Paul's Epistles (excluding the Pastoral Epistles), Marcion's version of Luke, which he attributed to Paul, and the “Letter to the Alexandrians” and the “Letter to the Laodiceans,” which were forged documents falsely attributed to Paul. Marcion rejected any Scripture that was oriented towards the Jews: the entire Old Testament, the Letter to the Hebrews, and Peter's letters.
By presuming to use his own theological criteria in the selection of scriptures, Marcion placed himself above the apostles.
     Challenge. Now, isn't this the same principle being applied implicitly by individuals, churches, and organizations who highlight only some parts of Scripture and ignore others? Take for example the tendency among many Christians to sugar-coat the gospel. They don't like to talk about sin and hell, because they prefer to talk about the love and forgiveness of God. They talk so much about free grace but give only a passing mention to repentance and Lordship. They don't deny sin, hell, repentance and obedience, they just don't talk about it that much. But isn't that being selective? Sure, they won't go to the extent of creating their own canon, like Marcion did, but practically speaking, they're doing the same thing he did.
     I'll give another example. There are preachers, Bible study leaders, and writers who take a text, and make it to mean whatever they want it to mean. They're more interested in promoting their agenda than simply explaining the Bible. I once heard a sermon on the FEBC station by a pretty well-known pastor and author. He used the first chapter of Exodus to talk about OFWs. I was appalled! The Exodus is about God's unfolding plan of redemption, not about steps you need to take to protect yourself in a foreign land! Now, I don't know what goes on from week to week in evangelical churches across the country, but from the little I've seen throughout the years, I fear that this kind of abuse of Scripture is fairly common.
     Open Theism's Undermining of Inerrancy. Another kind of heresy against Scripture is the denial of its inerrancy. Liberals have been doing thisWhile open theists affirm the inerrancy of Scripture, their theological system places them on shakey ground. To my mind, their notion of a God who refuses to override human will is incompatible with 2 Peter 1:19-21, which is the clearest biblical statement on the absolute reliability of Scripture. Moreover, prophetic passages that discuss future events can be understood as God's informed guess at best, since the future is beyond the bounds of His knowledge. Following the logic of open theism therefore leads to this conclusion: it is possible that Scripture just happens to be innerant, but there is no certainty. In fact, it is very unlikely that Scripture is inerrant, considering all the human and non-human factors in the formation of the canon.
I like what John MacArthur said about the Scriptures:
“If you were to back me to the wall and say, “What is the most important important thing that you believe?” … I'll tell you this: the authority of Scripture. That has to be it, because if I equivocate at all on the authority of the Scripture, than anything in the Scripture is up for grabs. The most important doctrine that you will ever hold is your conviction that the Bible is the word of God.
     Challenge. So how do we apply this information to our situation today, particularly with regards to ecumenism? Simply put, we have to be quick to identify people who have a high view of Scripture and those who do not. And of those who say that Scripture is infallible, inerrant, sufficient and relevant, we need to identify quickly whether they really believe that, or are just paying lip service. This is important, because once a person's doctrine of Scripture goes downhill, everything else is sure to follow. So we should think twice about joining hands with such a person in fellowship and ministry. What he/she needs is not to be given false assurance, but to be instructed in the most basic tenets of the faith.

(To be continued...)

Related Posts:

  1. Ecumenism: The Need for Ecumenism
  2. Ecumenism: Heresies, Part 1

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