In its rejection of the Roman Catholic Church, modern Protestantism has sometimes erred by steering to the opposite extreme of an anarchistic repudiation of all the church accomplished before the Reformation. Sometimes also we hear a call for a return to the supposed purity of the early church, though history reveals an early church that was in a constant struggle with heretical and blatantly pagan ideas.
There was no pure early church because it was composed of sinners in need of sanctification. Just one of the sins that needed to be sanctified, 1 Corinthians shows, was incest. Whenever the church grows quickly, there enter practices and ideas which it must confront. For the most part, practices were dealt with by the local churches. It was when pagan ideas and philosophies tried to reinterpret and co-opt the gospel that larger groups of churchmen, synods or councils, debated and formulated statements of orthodoxy. Throughout its history, the church has had to defend the faith from those whose claim to orthodoxy was a cloak to conceal their attempts to redefine the faith.
Defending the Faith
There is a modern hostility to councils and creeds. Many wrongly suspect the creeds of Christendom came out of the ecclesiastical equivalent of the political “smoke-filled room,” where a tiny cabal of churchmen decided to mold Christianity to their own preference. One example is the non-historical fiction that the Trinity was a creation of the church. In fact, it was the attempts of alien forces to deny the Trinity that gave rise to its defense by councils and creeds.
The councils and creeds of the church were a very practical response to the need to clarify doctrines that were being challenged. When pagans came into the church, they brought with them their worldviews and philosophies in terms of which they tried to understand Christianity. Much of this represented, no doubt, a real sincerity. Just as a Darwinian naturalist who comes to the faith might try to fit evolution into the Bible, so the common philosophies of the times entered the church and were force-fitted into Biblical theology. The councils and creeds represent some of the battlegrounds of those attempts.
There were problems in answering challenges to orthodoxy. There was no fixed body to resolve controversies. This meant the debates raged for generations, because even when a council reached a decision, there was no means of enforcing it. Bishops could and did side with those defined as heretics. Freedom does involve problems. The difficulty the church encountered in dealing with heretics is an example of how free men can settle issues without an overreaching human authority.
Controversies often led to a ruling by a local bishop or a local or provincial council. The calling of an ecumenical council was difficult and used only occasionally. These produced creeds, definitions, and anathemas of false teachings.
What False Teachings?
The focus of the controversies for the first seven centuries of the church was the incarnation of Christ. The reason this was a source of controversy was that in order to “fit” prevailing thought into Scripture, the Biblical teachings on the incarnation and the doctrine of the Trinity had to be rewritten.
This changed the gospel, of course, and was resisted. Far from an attempt to mold Christianity, the councils and creeds were a defense of what was often called the “apostolic tradition,” by which was meant Biblical faith as understood and taught by the apostles. The Bible, for instance, teaches a clear difference between God and man. God is deity and man is a created being and can never be anything more. This is called the Creator-creature distinction. Greek philosophy, which was the prevailing paradigm of the time, held to a continuity of being, where all being was seen as one, so that the difference between men and gods was only one of degree, not substance. In Greek thought and mythology (which were stories told to illustrate their worldview) men could, in fact, become gods.
The Greek thought which dominated was dualistic. It held to at least two metaphysical realms, material and spirit. Man’s great limitation was that he was a mortal stuck in a material body. Man’s problem in Greek thought was a metaphysical one. His “salvation” was to achieve deity by transcending his mortality and entering the spiritual realm of the gods. Man’s problem according to Scripture, however, was not his mortality but his morality—he was a sinner.
When Paul preached on the Areopagus (Mars Hill) at Athens, his teaching made no sense to the Greek minds. Paul kept speaking of a deity that seemed, to the Greek mind, to be going backwards on the scale of being. For the Son of God to move from the spirit realm and become flesh was moving the wrong way. Even so, they might have admired a dead Jesus as a heroic figure, but the resurrection once again had divinity in the flesh that the Greek mind considered “non-divine.” Their response to Paul when he spoke of the resurrection was thus, in effect, the dismissive: “Maybe we’ll talk later.”
Dualism was a metaphysical understanding about the nature of being. A religious tradition of the early centuries of Christianity called Gnosticism was also influential in the theological controversies. Gnosticism was not an organized religion but an intellectual movement to blend all religions into a common narrative. The Gnostics viewed the original divine being, the demiurge, as being remote and unknowable. All man could know or experience were aeons or emanations that had come through many stages. Jesus, the Gnostics said, was such an aeon, and was not really a man because, they held, matter was corrupt. He was, they said, just united to a man from His baptism to His death. Salvation to the Gnostics was not a moral question, for the things of life pertained to flesh, which was a lesser state. Salvation, they said, was to divinity, and was gained by the secret knowledge (or gnosis) they offered.
Gnosticism was at the root of most of the heresies the church fought over during its first six centuries. It was Gnosticism’s “secret knowledge” that tried to redefine Christianity. The so-called “lost gospels” were largely Gnostic rewrites of the Christian New Testament. They were repudiated as intentionally subversive forgeries by the early church, but are now often referred to as if they were the true gospels suppressed by a small group of church theologians.
Heresies Confronted by the Early Church
It is worth noting just a few of the heresies that were presented as “better understandings” of the incarnation:
Ebionism denied the divinity of Jesus, and claimed He was only a prophet pervaded by a higher power.
Docetism was a clearly Gnostic idea presented as true Christianity. It denied that Jesus had a real body, ostensibly to protect Him from the “evil” of any association with matter.
Monarchianism denied the divinity of Jesus, saying He was a mere man who was exalted by the Holy Spirit to be Lord.
Sabellianism denied the doctrine of the Trinity. It held the three persons were all manifestations of one being. It held that Jesus was non-existent before or after His “incarnation,” and that both He and the Holy Spirit were just temporary manifestations of the Father.
Manichaeism was an extreme form of dualism which believed in the ultimacy of both good and evil. The God of the Old Testament it saw as evil, because He was so engaged in the material world. Jesus, it said, was not really a man so His death was not real.
Arianism was the specific form of Gnosticism that the first ecumenical council addressed at Nicea (A.D.325). It said that because God was unknowable, He could not be revealed by Jesus (said to be created) or the Holy Spirit. The Son and the Spirit were said to be inferior to the Father. With an unknowable Father and inferior status attributed to the Son and Spirit, much room was left for the Arians to redefine the faith.
Apollinarianism so wanted to avoid association of God with matter that it held Jesus was not human, that His flesh came down from heaven.
Nestorianism insisted on maintaining a distinction and separation between the divinity and humanity of Jesus.
Monophysitism held that Jesus only had one divine nature, and that the human nature was wholly merged into divine.
Adoptionism held that Jesus was only the Son of God by adoption.
It is important to note that all these ideas were at some point presented by priests and bishops as true Christian theology. The councils and creeds were far from a rewrite of the gospel; they were its defense against alien ideas in a far from “pure” church. If these ideas sound foreign to Christianity, it is because of the heroic stand for truth fought by many men over half a millennium. It was these heretics who tried to co-opt the growth and dynamic that Christianity represented.
Jesus is Lord
The first creed was “Jesus is Lord” (Rom. 10:9–10; 1 Cor. 12:3). This was a statement of both faith and an understanding of its implications, for this faith challenged both Jewish unbelief and Rome’s messianic claims to sovereignty as the source of law, justice, and man’s salvation.
The Apostolic Creed, though not written by a council, had its roots in a creed related at least as early as Irenaeus, in A.D. 170. Irenaeus had known Polycarp, a disciple of St. John!
The Nicene Creed we now know was a restatement of the position of the Council of Nicea (A.D. 325) after the Council of Constantinople I (A.D. 381). The Nicene Creed built onto the framework of the Apostle’s Creed and used even more specific language in order to counter the revolutionary assaults of the dualists and the Gnostic groups. The purpose was not to create doctrine but to prevent its subversion by redefinition. Each time a creed established a formula of orthodox belief, the heretics had tried to find a loophole. Sometimes the attempt focused on a single word.
The early church fought long and hard to prevent theology from being subverted by the so-called intellectuals of the day. It is telling that the modern church, which is often so careless in its theology, sees fit to so easily dismiss the efforts of those on whose shoulders, humanly speaking, they stand.
It is not without reason the Chalcedon Foundation derives its name from the important ecumenical council of A.D. 451, which declared in its creed or “definitions” a belief that the apostolic faith demanded that Jesus be:
…recognized in two natures, without confusion, without change, without division, without separation; the distinction of natures being in no way annulled by the union, but rather the characteristics of each nature being preserved and coming together to form one person and subsistence, not as parted or separate into two persons, but one and the same Son and only-begotten God the Word, Lord Jesus Christ; even as the prophets from earliest times spoke of him, and our Lord Jesus Christ himself taught us, and the creed of the Fathers has handed down to us.1