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What’s Your Favorite Heresy?


There’s something attractive about every heresy. Otherwise, no one would had bothered with it in the first place. People didn’t come up with the ideas that eventually came to be labeled as heresies because they were bored and wanted to rile the “powers that be.” No, heresy comes from an earnest attempt to answer life’s most difficult questions. Although the answers heresy offers were eventually found to be inadequate and/or unacceptable, that doesn’t change the fact that they were honest attempts at good theology – attempts that many people found compelling for some reason.

So every heresy has some attraction. For example, consider the following. (These are over-simplifications, but you get the point.)

  • Adoptionism: The belief that Jesus was born as a regular human, and was adopted into the divine life at some specific point (e.g. baptism, resurrection). With this one, we get an obviously human Jesus. He can empathize with our weaknesses, because he lived a frail human life just like ours, untainted by some divine nature lurking behind the scenes. And we also get the image of a relationship with God that can be achieved through faithful living. If Jesus did it, so can we.
  • Docetism: The belief that Christ’s physical body was an illusion and that he didn’t really die on the cross. In one fell swoop you eliminate all the difficult questions surrounding the incarnation (since it never happened) and how the divine nature can suffer (it didn’t). 
  • Marcionism: The belief that the god of the OT is a separate (and rather nasty) being from the loving God of the NT; so, Christians shouldn’t have anything to do with OT scriptures or those aspects of the NT that have been corrupted by OT influences. Forget about all those troubling OT passages about wrath and violence, and get rid of some difficult NT passages at the same time. And you get a God who is all about love and forgiveness. Sounds good to me.
  • Modalism: The belief that the Father, Son, and Spirit are simply three “aspects” of the one God (kind of like the idea that I am one person who is a father, a husband, and a teacher). The Trinity is confusing. So forget about notions of God somehow being both three and one. Let’s just go with oneness. That’s much easier to understand.
  • Arianism: The belief that the Son was the first of all the created beings and the one who serves as the intermediary between the infinitely transcendent Creator and the rest of creation. This one is particularly helpful because it does away with so many problems at once. The incarnation isn’t an issue because the Son is a created being to begin with. There are no trinitarian problems because there’s no real Trinity. And you get to keep your completely transcendent Creator without worrying about how he can be involved in the suffering of a fallen world (he’s not). 
  • Apollinarianism: The belief that in the incarnation the Son only assumed a physical, human body and not a truly human soul (i.e. the Son puts on a human body kind of like I might put on a costume). With this view, offers a more readily understandable view of the incarnation. It’s not that you really have a union of two natures (divine and human), but you have a divine person simply clothing himself in human form for a time. That’s a picture I can wrap my mind around.
  • Nestorianism: The belief that the incarnation involves the union of two complete persons: the eternal Logos and the human Jesus. This one is basically the inverse of Apollinarianism. Instead of solving the problems of the incarnation by basically denying that there’s a fully human person involved, Nestorianism solves the problem by making the “union” more of a partnership. You’ve got two full person who just work really closely together. I can get on board with that.
  • Pelagianism: The belief that God has already graced us with everything that we need to achieve salvation; we simply need to be disciplined and use these God-given gifts to walk the path laid out for us. This one is great because it so clearly teaches the goodness of God’s creation (especially humans), avoids the difficulties associated with the concepts of total depravity, original sin, and predestination (by denying or significantly redefining them), emphasizes the importance of discipline and godly living, and decries any form of “easy-believism.

I could go on: Adoptionism, Gnosticism, Montanism, Monarchianism, Donatism, and more. Every one of them offered something compelling: an approach that made difficult questions understandable. And they all thought they were defending Christianity against ideas that would ultimately undermine Christian faith, life, and ministry. Although they all went on to be condemned, that doesn’t change the fact that they each have their attraction.

What’s your favorite heresy? Which of these, or some other, do you find most compelling? 

I have to admit that I can see the attraction of several of these heresies. But, if I were to pick my favorite, it would have to be Adoptionism (though Pelagianism is a close second). I think I just grew up on so many stories of the human Jesus, and so much emphasis on how important it is that he was truly human. So, I don’t find myself gravitating toward heresies like Docetism or Gnosticism. Their Jesus is too transcendent and otherworldly to tempt me much. But the earthy, faithful Jesus of Adoptionism is someone I can get behind. And I suppose that Adoptionism and Pelagianism both tempt because they both play to my own achievement mentality. At its core, the Christian life is about disciplined faithfulness. Just follow Christ’s example: be disciplined, work hard, and live faithfully. That’s all it takes.

I like that. Of course, that’s because deep down I really want the story of salvation to be about me and what I can achieve.

What about you? What’s your favorite heresy?

Carson and Keller on Confessionalism, Boundaries, and the Gospel.

Don Carson and Tim Keller posted an excellent piece today: Reflections on Confessionalism, Boundaries, and Discipline. The post wass written primarily to explain The Gospel Coalition position on disagreement and correction among board members. But, it’s really an excellent read for understanding how boundaries and confessions work in any movement.

You should go read the article, but I wanted to highlight a couple of things that I found particularly interesting.

First, they use the distinction between an “boundary-bounded set” and a “center-bounded set” to describe their movement. This language has been around for a while now, and it differentiates between groups that try to establish clear in/out boundaries (e.g. confessional churches), and those that build their commitments on some central agreement(s) but leave lots of fuzziness around the edges (e.g. evangelicalism as a whole). This distinction has been around for a while, so it’s not unique to Carson and Keller. Indeed, Roger Olson recently used the same distinction to argue that evangelicalism is a “centered set” movement. So, what’s interesting here is that although Olson has been rather critical of groups like the Gospel Coalition for having an overly narrow and closed-minded understanding of evangelicalism, it would seem that Carson and Keller actually view the movement in very similar ways.

I also appreciated the discussion toward the end on the relationship between the doctrine of the Trinity and the Gospel, in which they draw a distinction between whether the Trinity is essential to the Gospel and whether having an orthodox view of the Trinity is necessary for salvation. As they rightly point out, those are two different issues:

In some discussion or other, we might claim, rightly, that the orthodox doctrine of the Trinity is irrefragably tied up with the gospel. Someone might object, “Surely not! Is an orthodox view of the Trinity necessary for salvation?” In reality, these are two differentiable issues. To say that the doctrine of the Trinity is tied up with the gospel is to make a claim about the structure of the gospel, about what the gospel is, about its content.

Ignoring for a second that they actually used the word “irrefragably,” this is a great point. Doctrines like the Trinity and the Incarnation provide an essential shape and structure to the Gospel. Without them, the Gospel is undermined in critical ways. But, that doesn’t mean that someone who rejects them necessarily rejects the Gospel. It just means that they’re operating with an understanding of the Gospel that has some real weak spots. But, fortunately for us all, the standard of salvation is not how well we understand orthodox theology, as important as that might be.

What reveals who you truly are?

Who are you? If someone really wanted to get to know you and find out what kind of person you truly are, how should they go about doing that? They could talk to people who know you well: your spouse, friends, coworkers, children, or people at church. But, would that reveal the true you? They could find out how you spend your time, what you invest your money in, and what hobbies you have. All of these things would tell them something about you, but even then, would they really know you? What if they took a peek at your computer and checked out your browsing history? I’m sure that would be enlightening.

But, would it tell them everything?

What reveals who you truly are?

I don’t know what it is for me. You could look at my books, read my blog posts, even ask my wife and daughters, but I don’t think any of these things really tells the whole story about who I am.

I don’t know what could.

You’d think it would be even harder for God. After all, he’s God. How could we possibly know even a small fraction of what it means to be God – his glory, majesty, power, grace, goodness, wisdom, love, justice, and more. If I can’t think of a way to show people who I am, surely it must be that much harder for an infinite God.

But, God doesn’t have that problem. He knows exactly how to reveal himself to us. And, he has done just that.

Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. (Jn. 14:9)

What an amazing statement. No hesitation, no uncertainty, no doubt. Philip asks Jesus to show them the Father and without missing a beat, Jesus points to himself—I reveal the Father so perfectly that if you have seen me, you have seen the Father.

Take a moment and think about that.

Some guy—a regular person, a construction worker—tells you that he and God are so tight that if you just look at him, you will see the Father. How would you respond?

And, Paul agrees.

According to him, Jesus is “the image of the invisible God” (Col. 1:15; cf. 2 Cor. 4:4). Although we were all created to be God’s image bearers in the world, revealing God in creation, Paul sees Jesus as the only one who really gets it right. The only hope for the rest of us is to be re-shaped in the image of Jesus so that we can again image God the way we were supposed to (Rom 8:29; 1 Cor. 15:49).

Indeed, Jesus reveals God so perfectly, that the author of Hebrews says that “He is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature” (Heb. 1:3).

How can a human being reveal the infinite God? I don’t know. But, he did.

Immanuel…God with us.

From the very beginning of the story, God has been revealing himself to us, reaching out to us and calling us to know him. Although always failed to understand, God never gave up. Instead, he promised that one day he would send a true prophet who would come and tell us about God.

Once again, God has done more than we expected. He didn’t send just another prophet with words we could ignore.

He sent the Son himself.

God promised, Jesus came, true revelation.

[You can read the rest of the posts in this series on the Gospel book page.]

Gollum saves the day

I’m a big fan of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. But, one thing always confused me. Why did he call the last book The Return of the King? If you’ve read the book or seen the movie, you know that the title refers to the fact that the kingdom of Gondor has been without its rightful king for a very long time. And, the true king of Gondor, Aragorn, has not yet returned to claim the kingdom as his inheritance. So, from the title, you presume that the heart of the book will be the return of Aragorn to reestablish the kingdom of Gondor.

And, in one of the story’s climactic scenes, that’s exactly what happens. A huge army of vicious, ugly orcs has invaded Gondor and looks certain to destroy its capital city, slaughtering all of the Gondorians (Gondorites? Gondorans? Gondor-people?) along the way. At the last possible second, Aragorn and his companions arrive on a fleet of black-sailed ships. Leaping from the side of the ship, Aragorn stares down the waiting orcs before unleashing his own army of ghost-soldiers (it’s complicated) to destroy the opposing army and save the besieged humans.

The king has returned.

Big deal.

The story isn’t even close to being over. Indeed, there’s an even larger orc-army just waiting to be unleashed on the humans. And, they haven’t faced the evil overlord, Sauron, who is behind all of this in the first place.

So, the good news is…the king is back. The bad news is…you’re about to be eaten by an orc anyway.

The story doesn’t seem to find its true resolution until the Ring of Power, which Sauron needs to sustain his awesome evilness, is destroyed by being tossed into the depths of a powerful volcano. Actually, it doesn’t really get tossed into the volcano. Technically, one of the more interesting characters in the story, Gollum, steals the ring and while triumphantly dancing around with glee, he falls into the fiery volcano with the ring clutched in his greedy little hands. (The moral of the story, of course, is that one should never dance near open volcanoes.) And, once the ring is destroyed, Sauron dies and his orc armies are finally vanquished.

So, the real hero of the story is…Gollum. After all, he’s the one who destroys the ring and defeats Sauron. The evil one is defeated. Victory is won. Let’s go home.

So, why does Tolkien call this book The Return of the King? Why not Gollum Saves the Day? Wouldn’t that be a more fitting description of the book’s real climax? Not for Tolkien. Killing Sauron isn’t really the point. Sauron needs to be defeated, of course. But, that’s just one part of a much larger story—the restoration of the kingdom. That’s why Tolkien continues the story even after Sauron dies, telling us about Aragorn getting married, establishing his kingdom, and ruling for a nice, long time. That’s the good news. Killing bad guys is one thing. But unless the king returns and establishes the kingdom, things still won’t be the way they’re supposed to be. It’s only when the kingdom comes that you have all the blessings of the kingdom: peace, justice, prosperity, pretty elf-wife—shalom.

The good news is about the return of the king.

Santa Claus and the Coming of the Messiah

[For those of you not interested in the upcoming football game, or those interested but looking for something to do until it begins, here’s what I’m thinking about using as the introduction to the chapter of my Gospel book on the coming of Christ and how that relates to God’s OT promises. And yes, I realize it’s the wrong time of year for a post about Santa Claus. Oh well.]

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My daughters don’t believe in Santa Claus. They never have. That’s mostly because my wife and I are evil parents and we told them from the very beginning that Santa Claus was not real. (If this is news to you, then please accept my apologies for breaking the news in such a heartless way.) We’ve always been careful to point out that there’s nothing wrong with pretending that Santa is real; it can even be kind of fun. So, sometimes at Christmas we’ll go ahead and pretend that Santa Claus is coming, even though we all know he isn’t. And, we’ve also warned them not to say anything to other kids about Santa. We really don’t want to have to deal with a bunch of angry parents who want to know why our kids just ruined their Christmas fun.

Although I like how we’ve handled our Christmas traditions and I wouldn’t want to do it differently, it’s hard not to notice that my daughters never approached Christmas with the same kind of anxious anticipation as other children. There were no eager questions about “When will Santa be here?”, whispers of “I think I hear him”, or little footsteps as they slipped quietly over to the window to see if that was the shadow of a sleigh they just glimpsed in the sky. There’s an element of expectation that comes with the story of Santa Claus that has a nearly irresistible sense of childish delight. And, in the morning, all of that pent up expectation, all the anxious hours of waiting, all the uncertainties and anxieties, they all explode in the delighted yell, “He came!”

Somehow we need to recapture that same sense of eager expectation if we’re going to appreciate what it was like to live on the verge of the New Testament. In the last chapter, we focused on the amazing promises that God offered his people throughout the Old Testament: a new king, a new sacrifice, a new spirit, a new heart, a new creation, and more. For centuries, God’s people had fed on a steady diet of God’s promises, knowing that he had not abandoned them, fearing that he had done just that.

Is the promised one really coming?
Yes, he’s coming.
He’ll be here soon!
Is that him?
No, not yet.
Where is he?
Over there!
No, that’s definitely not him.
He’ll never come.
Yes, he will. I know it. He’s coming.

God promised.

As we turn the page from the Old Testament to the New Testament, we pass through the time of anxious waiting, arriving at the moment when hope becomes reality, when promise becomes present, when not yet becomes now.

He’s here.

A prayer for Sunday – Ephrem the Syrian

The feast day of your birth resembles You, Lord
Because it brings joy to all humanity.
Old people and infants alike enjoy your day.
Your day is celebrated
from generation to generation.
Kings and emperors may pass away,
And the festivals to commemorate them soon lapse.
But your festival
will be remembered until the end of time.

Your day is a means and a pledge of peace.
At Your birth heaven and earth were reconciled,
Since you came from heaven to earth on that day
You forgave our sins and wiped away our guilt.

You gave us so many gifts on the day of your birth:
A treasure chest of spiritual medicines for the sick;
Spiritual light for the blind;
The cup of salvation for the thirsty;
The bread of life for the hungry.

In the winter when trees are bare,
You give us the most succulent spiritual fruit.
In the frost when the earth is barren,
You bring new hope to our souls.
In December when seeds are hidden in the soil,
The staff of life springs forth from the virgin womb.

~Ephrem the Syrian (ca. 306-373)

A prayer for the first Sunday of Advent….Bernard of Clairvaux

Let Your goodness Lord appear to us, that we
made in your image, conform ourselves to it.
In our own strength
we cannot imitate Your majesty, power, and wonder
nor is it fitting for us to try.
But Your mercy reaches from the heavens
through the clouds to the earth below.
You have come to us as a small child,
but you have brought us the greatest of all gifts,
the gift of eternal love
Caress us with Your tiny hands,
embrace us with Your tiny arms
and pierce our hearts with Your soft, sweet cries.

Bernard of Clairvaux (1090-1153)

Flotsam and jetsam (11/4)

The theology that is taught in almost all theological institutions around here is an ill-fitting version of Christianity that simply does not work here. The Christianity that results is not transforming lives or churches or communities or cultures or nations. In that sense, rather than reflecting what is happening theologically, these Western theologies may actually be erecting barriers preventing people here from experiencing the transforming power of the risen Christ.

“I cannot help thinking that the incarnational analogy may be more trouble than it is worth.  Chalcedon was designed to clarify the being of Jesus Christ, not Scripture.  Please do not misunderstand: there is nothing wrong with Chalcedon, just as there was nothing wrong with the paper clip I used so cleverly in my skateboard to replace a screw.  However, that improvisation ended with a broken arm.  I wonder, then, about the wisdom of using language formulated for one truth to express another.”

Here’s our context: they are bringing the ark to the house of Obed-edom, the future site of the Temple, and they are sacrificing. The context is cultic. The modern correlation to worship (i.e., singing) is false.

  • I forgot to mention earlier, but James McGrath has posted a link to what looks like a really useful set of resources from the Wabash Center for evaluating online resources. If you’re a teacher or student, check these out.

Flotsam and jetsam (7/1)

Remembering Cyril of Alexandria and the Twelve Anathemas

Cyril of Alexandria died on June 27, 444. Although his reputation has not survived entirely unscathed over the years, he is still widely regarded as one of the most important and influential theologians of the early church, and a staunch opponent of Nestorian christologies in any form. Here are the Twelve Anathemas that Cyril leveled against Nestorius and his supporters, arguing that the personal unity of Christ in the incarnation is of vital importance for Christian theology.

  1. If anyone does not confess the Emmanuel to be truly God, and hence the holy virgin to be Mother of God (for she gave birth in the flesh to the Word of God made flesh), let him be anathema.
  2. If anyone does not confess that the Word of God the Father was hypostatically united to the flesh so as to be One Christ with his own flesh, that is the same one at once God and man, let him be anathema.
  3. If anyone divides the hypostases of the One Christ after the union, connecting them only by a conjunction in terms of honour or dignity or sovereignty, and not rather by a combination in terms of natural union, let him be anathema.
  4. If anyone interprets the sayings in the Gospels and apostolic writings, or the things said about Christ by the saints, or the things he says about himself, as referring to two prosopa or hypostases, attributing some of them to a man conceived of as separate from the Word of God, and attributing others (as divine) exclusively to the Word of God the Father, let him be anathema.
  5. If anyone should dare to say that Christ was a God-bearing man and not rather that he is truly God as the one natural Son, since the Word became flesh and ‘shared in flesh and blood just like us’ (Heb.2.14), let him be anathema.
  6. If anyone says that the Word of God the Father is the God or Lord of Christ, and does not rather confess the same one is at once God and man, since according to the scriptures the Word has become flesh, let him be anathema.
  7. If anyone says that Jesus as a man was activated by the Word of God and invested with the glory of the Only Begotten, as being someone different to him, let him be anathema.
  8. If anyone should dare to say that the assumed man ought to be worshipped along with God the Word and co-glorified and called ‘God’ as if he were one alongside another (for the continual addition of the phrase ‘along with’ demands this interpretation) and does not rather worship the Emmanuel with a single veneration and render him a single doxology since the Word became flesh, let him be anathema.
  9. If anyone says that the One Lord Jesus Christ was glorified by the Spirit, using the power that came through him as if it were foreign to himself, and receiving from him the power to work against unclean spirits and to accomplish divine signs for men, and does not rather say that the Spirit is his very own, through whom he also worked the divine signs, let him be anathema.
  10. The divine scripture says that Christ became ‘the high priest and apostle of our confession’ (Heb.3.1) and ‘offered himself for our sake as a fragrant sacrifice to God the Father’ (Eph.5.2). So if anyone says that it was not the very Word of God who became our high priest and apostle when he became flesh and man as we are, but it was someone different to him, a separate man born of a woman; or if anyone says that he made the offering also for himself and not rather for us alone (for he who knew no sin had no need of offerings), let him be anathema.
  11. If anyone does not confess that the Lord’s flesh is life-giving and the very-own flesh of the Word of God the Father, but says that it is the flesh of someone else, different to him, and joined to him in terms of dignity, or indeed only having a divine indwelling, rather than being life-giving, as we have said, because it has become the personal flesh of the Word who has the power to bring all things to life, let him be anathema.
  12. If anyone does not confess that the Word of God suffered in the flesh, was crucified in the flesh, and tasted death in the flesh, becoming the first-born from the dead, although as God he is life and life-giving, let him be anathema.