Early Christian Heresies
“After my departure fierce wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock; and from among your own selves will arise men speaking twisted things” (vv. 29–30).- Acts 20:28–31
We could easily apply Ecclesiastes 1:9 (“there is nothing new under the sun”) to the topic of heresy. All of the theological controversies and false teachings we face in our own day have already occurred in one form or another in church history. Certain christological errors pop up again and again, and a look at past heresies will help us develop a sound Christology today.
Particularly important for our purposes are those heresies in the period leading up to the Council of Nicea in 325 AD. Today and tomorrow we will look briefly at these heresies and the orthodox response given at the council. Three false teachings will occupy our study today:
1. The Ebionite Heresy was one of the first challenges the church faced, although it basically died out by the end of the fifth century. This heresy arose in Jewish-Christian circles and denied the deity of Christ altogether. Jesus, the Ebionites said, was a unique man, equipped in a special way by the Spirit of God to be the Messiah; however, He was in no sense God Himself.
2. Dynamic Monarchianism was a greater threat to biblical orthodoxy in the early church. This christological heresy rejected the deity of Christ as well, believing that Jesus was a mere man who was later adopted by the Father as the Son of God at His baptism. In this adoption Jesus did not share in the being or essence of God; rather, the unity they shared was moral and ethical. This heresy is sometimes termed adoptionism.
3. Modalistic Monarchianism affirmed Christ’s deity, but it did not see any distinction between the Father, the Son, or the Spirit. This error conceives of one God who wears three masks: in ancient days He was the Father; two thousand years ago, He walked the earth as the Son; and since the time of Pentecost, He is the Spirit. Instead of being one essence with three distinct persons, God is one essence and one person. Historically this heresy has also been called Sabellianism, named after Sabellius, a man considered to be its chief promoter. There is some debate as to whether Sabellius actually held this specific view or some other heresy, but either way, he lacked a biblical understanding of God.
In our day, Oneness Pentecostals embrace Modalistic Monarchianism. The Jehovah’s Witnesses subscribe to Arianism, a movement that is a later development of Dynamic Monarchianism. It is important to have a good understanding of church history so that we might not be caught off guard by old errors. Make it your aim this month to learn about one century of church history that you might be better equipped to defend the truth.
Passages for Further Study
1 John 4:1–6
2 John 9–11