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.
From the very beginning, the Christian Church has always believed and confessed with Peter: “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God,” (Matthew 16:16) and with Thomas, who addressed Jesus as “My Lord and my God.” (John 20:28) But the difficulty of defining how Jesus is both true God and true man, having a distinct personality and yet full equality with the Father, led to many errors. Usually one of these truths was overemphasized at the expense of the other.
Near the end of the second century, certain people were attempting to defend the absolute unity and sole rule of God. For this reason, they were called Monarchians. They had the worthy goal of avoiding every appearance of believing that Jesus was another God alongside the Father. This soon resulted in error from two directions. Some saw Jesus as less than fully God; these are often called dynamic monarchians, or adoptionists. Others saw Jesus as a mere manifestation of God the Father as He appears to us. These are named modal monarchians and will be dealt with in a later article.
Several names float down to us through the mists of time from Eusebius, the first Christian historian: Theodotus, the fuller; Theodotus, the banker; Artemon; even Asclepiodotus! These came from Asia Minor to Rome and taught that the man Jesus was given unique strength by the Father. The only deity He could claim was the power poured out on Him at His baptism. In this way, He was adopted by God. They were never a very large group and were condemned and cast out of the church.
But later a more prominent leader arose, who gained a larger following and caused greater difficulty. This was Paul of Samosata, the patriarch of Antioch. He is described as “unspiritual, worldly, imperious, vain, pompous, insidious, sophistic, covetous, and even immoral.” He taught that Jesus was a man miraculously born but having no existence before being formed in the womb of Mary. He was granted a unique measure of divine wisdom and, aided by that wisdom, “gradually climbed to divine dignity and became worthy of the divine name.” (This sounds much like Mormonism with its humans-become-gods theology.) He was not a distinct person of the Trinity but dwelled with God much like reason dwells in us.
Paul of Samosata was finally condemned by a convention in Antioch, but only on the third try in 272. He was able to mask his teaching so cleverly that he sounded orthodox while meaning something quite different from what Scripture teaches.
He was also condemned by name in our Augsburg Confession. The first article rejects “Samosatenes, old and new, who . . . craftily and impiously argue that the Word and the Holy Spirit are not distinct persons since ‘Word’ signifies a spoken word and ‘Spirit’ signifies a movement which is produced in things.”
Eusebius stresses their rationalism. Of course, we strive to be rational. But when reason becomes supreme over Scripture, it always leads to error. Eusebius: “They care not what the holy books say, but they laboriously seek out a form of reasoning which would support their impiety.” They admire Aristotle, and Galen they “almost worship.” They were not afraid to alter the Scriptures, claiming “to correct them.” Others “disdained to make these falsifications, but have simply rejected the law and the prophets.”
How like the Modernists who have thoroughly taken over nearly all branches of the church! Thinking they know more than the Bible, they blithely cut and paste. Unwilling to believe that Jesus could do miracles, they explain them away. Unable to accept the deity of Jesus, they simply deny it or redefine what it means. Blinded to the need for a spiritual salvation, they strive for an earthly one. Rejecting Scripture’s heaven, they seek to construct a heaven on earth and gain neither.
“Lord, keep us steadfast in Thy Word.”
Norman Greve is pastor of St. Peter’s Evangelical Lutheran Church in Iron River, Michigan.