In this series we take a look back at some of the most notorious errors and heresies that have threatened the church over the centuries, as well as the subtle (and not so subtle) ways in which those false teachings continue to haunt 21st century thought and theology.
The joy of an echo is standing on a cliff’s edge, shouting into the canyon, and waiting for the sound to bounce off the rock walls and return. There is no similar joy in error’s echo, but the effect is the same—a false teaching arises and, at some point in the future, it is heard again.
Most false teachings originate with human reason trying to constrain the true God within human limitations, or as a way of excusing sin, or purely out of the imagination of self-centered natural sinners. Adoptionism is an example of using reason in an attempt to explain the inexplicable.
The early Christians emphasized the oneness of God in contrast to the many gods of the Greeks and Romans. They proclaimed that they worshipped only one Ruler—one Monarch. Sadly, some went too far and lost the triune nature of God in the process. This over-emphasis of God’s oneness and loss of the Trinity is called “Monarchianism.”
Adoptionism is a specific type called Monarchianism—Dynamic Monarchianism. Paul of Samosata, who lived in the middle of the third century, was the most notable teacher of this error.
Paul was the bishop of Antioch (Acts 11:19-30; 13:1 and following) and was the chief advisor to Queen Zenobia of Palmyra—a desert kingdom between Damascus and Mesopotamia. Zenobia was so powerful that she was able to defy Rome and effectively become the ruler of the eastern portion of the Roman Empire. This lasted until A.D. 272, when emperor Aurelian utterly defeated Zenobia and took her back to Rome. Even though the church had recognized and condemned Paul of Samosata’s error in A.D. 265, only after Zenobia’s defeat could it successfully depose him as bishop.
Bishop Paul did not believe that Jesus Christ is true God. Instead, He taught that Jesus was a man to whom the dunamis (Greek word for “power”) of God was given and in whom it was particularly evident (thus, “dynamic” Monarchianism). It was believed that Moses and other Old Testament prophets also had been given this power, but Jesus had it in the highest degree. Jesus was said to have used the dunamis with such faithfulness that the Father adopted Him as His Son (adoptionism). In this way, human teaching demystified the Trinity, reduced the true God to the level of human comprehension, and took away Jesus’ divinity.
The bible clearly teaches otherwise, “Beware lest anyone cheat you through philosophy and empty deceit, according to the tradition of men, according to the basic principles of the world, and not according to Christ. For in Him dwells all the fullness of the Godhead bodily.” (Colossians 2:8-9)
Once Jesus’ divinity and His sacrificial atonement for sins are removed, there really is no Gospel left to believe. Jesus then is a man Whose saving work is in His teaching and His example, not His sacrifice. A sinner’s salvation then is no longer a gift won by Christ when He died and rose again, but is attained by the degree to which he is able to live like Christ.
Even though Paul of Samosata was eventually deposed as bishop, the echo of his error has continued to bounce around the canyons of Christianity. Adoptionism is itself an echo of the Ebionite error (cf. Lutheran Spokesman August 2020). It was still being heard in the days of the Reformation, for the Augsburg Confession declares, “Our churches also condemn the Samosatenes, old and new, who contend that God is but one person.” (Article I)
Today, the echoes are heard every time “living like Christ” is set forth as a goal unto itself or as a condition for salvation. The echoes are heard in every confession of Jesus that does not declare Him as the genuine and eternal Son of God. To this, God says, “He who does not honor the Son does not honor the Father who sent Him.” (John 5:23)
No matter how many times errors concerning Jesus, the Son of God, come bouncing back in new forms with new human appeal, we can stand on Scripture and declare: Jesus is “the Christ, the Son of the Living God.” (Matthew 16:16) It is the truth upon which Jesus has built His Church and the powers of hell cannot overcome it (Matthew 16:18).
Wayne Eichstadt is pastor of Gethsemane Lutheran Church in Spokane Valley, Washington.