Aug 12, 2021

Theological Controversies

8 Min Read


The Christian church has long been marked by theological controversy. Many of the Apostolic letters were written to combat false teaching that had crept into the early church. Ecumenical councils were convened in the early church to respond to theological error in relation to the biblical teaching about Christ. The doctrines of depravity and the will of man have been at the center of theological controversies at numerous periods throughout church history. The Reformers contended sharply with the Roman Catholic Church over biblical authority, worship, sacraments, and soteriology in the sixteenth century. During the past three decades, the doctrine of justification has again become a central point of controversy due to the influence of the New Perspective on Paul. In addition to these widespread controversies, many local theological controversies have occurred in different periods of church history.


Christological Controversies

In the centuries after the Apostolic era, the doctrine of the Trinity was the focus of discussion. This, in turn, led to the Christological controversies of the fourth and fifth centuries. During these centuries, four major councils met to determine what to do about faulty teaching concerning Christology.

The First Council of Nicaea was called by Constantine I in AD 325 to address the heretical doctrine of Arius of Alexander. Arius had explicitly denied the deity of Christ, asserting that Jesus was merely a created being. Arianism spread to such an extent that it became a prevailing view among many bishops. The council condemned Arius and his heretical doctrine, and after the council, Athanasius of Alexandria and others staunchly defended the biblical teaching about the deity of Christ.

As the deity of Christ had been defended at Nicaea, so the true humanity of Christ would be defended at the First Council of Constantinople (AD 381). Apollinaris, bishop of Laodicea, began denying that Christ had a true human mind and will. Rather, he suggested that the divine nature of Jesus filled His human body. The counsel ultimately rejected Apollinaris’ heretical denial of the full humanity of Christ, and it also strongly affirmed the deity of the Holy Spirit. The Council of Constantinople reauthorized the Nicene Creed—which became a test of orthodoxy early in the history of the church.

At the Council of Ephesus (AD 431), Christian bishops met under the direction of Emperor Theodosius II to address issues related to the teaching of Nestorius, archbishop of Constantinople. Nestorius rejected the teaching that Christ was one person with a divine nature and human nature. He promoted the idea that Christ was two persons, one divine and one human. Cyril of Alexandria contended sharply with Nestorius at Ephesus, persuading the council to denounce Nestorius’ unorthodox view. Nestorius’ erroneous Christology led to deep schism in the churches. Cyril’s arguments would go on to influence subsequent ecumenical councils regarding further Christological controversies.

The last council convened to address Christological controversy in the church was the Council of Chalcedon. Eutyches, archimandrite at Constantinople, taught that Jesus was one person—in contrast to Nestorianism—however, he denied that the human and divine natures remained distinct in the one person of Christ. Rather, he suggested that the human and divine nature merged together in the one person. The result of the Council of Chalcedon is what has been called Chalcedonian Christology. The Chalcedonian Definition asserts that Christ is one person with two natures, which are “unconfused, unchangeable, indivisible, and inseparable.”

Anthropological Controversies

In the fourth century, controversy arose over human depravity and the human will. Pelagius challenged Augustine, who taught that sinners are absolutely dependent on divine grace alone for their change of heart and ability to do what is pleasing to God. Augustine made the famous statement, “Grant what Thou commandest, and command what Thou dost require.” In opposition, Pelagius asserted that all man needed to assist him in performing good works was his own free will, nature, law, and virtue. The Pelagian Controversy set the stage for later theological controversies regarding the will. Regrettably, a modified version of Pelagianism known as semi-Pelagianism has long prevailed in churches. Both Pelagianism and semi-Pelagianism were condemned at the Council of Orange in AD 529.

After Augustine’s conflict with Pelagius, Martin Luther contended with the semi-Pelagianism of the sixteenth-century Roman Catholic linguist and scholar Erasmus. Erasmus taught that man needs grace to assist him in doing what is pleasing to God, while he denied the pervasive depravity of the human nature—especially with regard to the will of man. In response, Luther wrote his famous work The Bondage of the Will.

Yet another controversy over the will of man and the role of grace occurred later in the sixteenth century. Jacobus Arminius, a theological professor at the University of Leiden, began questioning some of the teaching of the Reformed churches in which he labored. His disciples, who came to be known as the Remonstrants, opposed the doctrine of total depravity and propagated a view of man that had much in common with the view of man advocated in semi-Pelagianism. The Synod of Dort met to respond to a summary of the Remonstrants’ teaching, known as the Remonstrance, and articulate the biblical teaching on these issues, which became known as the doctrines of grace or the five points of Calvinism.

Ecclesiastical Controversies

In addition to Christological controversies, the Christian church has been subject to a number of ecclesiastical controversies over the millennia. Under the direction of Leo IX, bishops from the Eastern and Western churches gathered at the Hagia Sophia in 1054 in order to debate the issue of the filioque clause, which the Western church had added to the Nicene Creed. Ultimately, Michael Cerularius, patriarch of Constantinople, countered the actions of the Western church, reproving certain worship practices of the Western church and Leo IX. This act resulted in the long-standing schism between the Eastern church and the Western church.

During the period of the Reformation, the Christian church in the West argued over sources of authority, worship, the sacraments, and the gospel. As Martin Luther, Huldrych Zwingli, John Calvin, and many other Reformers challenged the teachings and practices of the Roman papacy, a return to biblical understandings of authority, worship, baptism and the Lord’s Supper, and the gospel materialized in Europe and the Western world in the sixteenth century in what has been called the Protestant Reformation. Rome had elevated beliefs derived from church tradition such as the penitential system over the teaching of Scripture. The Reformers labored to bring the church’s traditions and practices into the light of the Word of God and its teaching regarding the solas of the Reformation.

Soteriological Controversies

Central to the theological controversy between the papacy and the Reformers in the sixteenth was the doctrine of justification. Rome unequivocally taught that a person could be justified by God by faith in Christ and by living a life of sanctification and good works. Accordingly, no one could have assurance of his salvation. Rather, individuals must keep living in step with the church’s penitential system and sacerdotalism. As they read and taught the Scriptures, the Reformers came to see that Rome was essentially propagating a false gospel akin to that which the Apostle Paul anathematized in his letter to the Galatians. The Reformers labored assiduously to advance the biblical teaching of the doctrine of justification by faith alone. The controversy led to the separation of many Western Christians from the authority of the pope and the convening of the Council of Trent, which formalized Roman Catholicism as we know it today in response to Protestantism. To this day, the controversy continues between Roman Catholicism and Protestants on the doctrine of justification.

Toward the end of the twentieth century, a new theological controversy emerged regarding the doctrine of justification. Certain individuals began questioning whether Martin Luther had a faulty understanding of the doctrine of justification due to an introspective conscience. Rather than viewing justification as a legal act on the part of God—by which He forgives the sins of His people and imputes Christ’s righteousness to them by faith alone—proponents of the New Perspective on Paul insist that justification for Paul is merely inclusion into the covenant community. Driven by a zeal for ecumenism, proponents have put forth redefinitions of Paul’s arguments in Romans and Galatians, as well as “straw-man arguments,” in order to suggest that justification is not part of the gospel. N.T. Wright has popularized this approach, which continues in the twenty-first century.

Theological Controversies in Protestantism

The first three decades of the twentieth century brought with them the Modernist-Fundamentalist Controversy. Throughout the remainder of the twentieth century and into the twenty-first century, various branches of Protestantism have battled over infant baptism, evolution, views on creation, dispensationalism and covenant theology, the Lordship controversy, complementarianism and egalitarianism, universalism versus the exclusivity of Christ, whether the spiritual gifts of tongues and prophecy have ceased, Neoorthodoxy, postmodernity, secularism, open theism, and human sexuality.


The Council of Chalcedon, in dealing with the mystery of the incarnation and affirming Jesus’ two natures, said that His two natures are perfectly united in such a way that they are not confused or mixed, divided or separated. We cannot mix them together as the Monophysites did, deifying the flesh or humanizing the spirit.

At the heart of the controversy in the fifth and sixth centuries, the sixteenth century, and today, remains the question of the degree of corruption visited upon fallen human beings in original sin. The controversy continues. The difference between the Pelagian controversy and the issues with semi-Pelagianism is that Pelagianism was seen by the church then and now as a sub-Christian and indeed anti-Christian approach to fallen humanity. The semi-Pelagian controversy, though a serious one, is not deemed to be a dispute between believers and unbelievers, but an intramural debate between believers.

R.C. Sproul

The Battle for Grace Alone

Tabletalk magazine

False ideas are the greatest obstacles to the reception of the gospel...What is today a matter of academic speculation begins tomorrow to move armies and pull down empires. In that second stage, it has gone too far to be combated; the time to stop it was when it was still a matter of impassioned debate.

J. Gresham Machen

“Christianity and Culture,” Princeton Theological Review, 11.1 (1913)