Getting Jesus Right

People make the goofiest claims about Jesus and often they do so in trying to saying something important. It is important for pastors — though not just pastors — to revisit early Christian heresies in 2-3 years. They are easy to forget but they are far more present among Christians than many recognize.

Not long ago a local pastor, James Macdonald, had a public conversation with T.D. Jakes, and Jakes has been more than a few times connected with what is called “modalism.” Macdonald’s first response to folks calling him out was not helpful, nor was it informed, and then when TD Jakes was at the event he attempted to clarify his beliefs, though the questions he was pressed on were not to me the best way to ask the important questions.

The point is not Jakes or James; the point is that routine reminders of Christian heresies and informed perceptions of both orthodoxy and heresy would have turned that situation around.

What to read? A good source is Ronald Heine’s Classical Christian Doctrine: Introducing the Essentials of the Ancient Faith. (Another good book on this is by Ben Quash, called Heresies and How to Avoid Them, which I posted about and you can access the posts here.)

In the 2d Century the issue was this: If Jesus was God, what was his relationship to the Father? If some devalued Jesus, others devalued the Father. One group who ended up devaluing the Father is called monarchiansIn essence, the monarchians totally identify the Son with the Father. There is “one ruler” (one God), hence “monarchy.” There are two kinds of monarchies, and we’ll get to both below.

What they affirm is that Jesus is God. How do they do this? By arguing that the Father manifested himself on earth as the Son. Father and Son, then, are two different modes in which God manifests himself in the world. “I and the Father are one” means they are the same rather than two in perfect unity. Furthermore, the tendency of this view is that what happened to the Son happened to the Father, with the result that the Son prays to whom? And the Son dies, and that means God dies. And a major issue in the 2d Century, and the final defeater for modalistic monarchianism, was that this means the Father suffers (called patripassianism).

The fuller form of modalistic monarchianism sees the Father present in the OT, the Father present in the Son in his incarnation, and the Father present in the Spirit after Jesus’ exaltation as modes of God’s presence.

A second kind of monarchianism (one God) is called “dynamic” monarchianism. In brief, this view claims Jesus was human but that God’s special power in the Spirit came upon him at his baptism.  In essence, Jesus was not God but a human being whom God filled in a unique way.

I hear a kind of monarchianism at times today when folks say Jesus is God only in the sense that God is with us in a special way in Jesus. That Jesus is the sacrament of God for us. This is a kind of dynamic monarchianism (one God) and quite often has roots in Protestant liberalism’s belief that Jesus was the ultimate religious genius but he was only a mere man.

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  • Jon G

    So, the notion that Jesus is the Father in a human temple can’t be…because we can’t explain why Jesus would be praying to the Father? And there’s NO problems with a Trinitarian view of God?

    Instead of always trying to call things “heretical”, I wish we could admit that all our conceptions of God are inadequate and theories that I hold as well as a Trinitarian holds are just that -theories. The early church sought to put God into a box by explaining how The Father and Jesus are related and that’s fine, we still do it today…but then to go the extra step and call people who put the relationship in a different box “heretics” or diminish them by saying they make the “goofiest claims” – well that just seems divisive and arrogant.

    I’m sorry, but if God wanted us to be so sure He was Trinitarian, He would have made it more explicit.

  • scotmcknight

    Jon G, it does no good to sling “divisive and arrogant” around because your comment does the very same thing. So, settle down and discuss the post and the ideas reasonably.
    1. Heretic refers to someone who rejects, or teaches contrary to, what the church fathers agreed to be orthodox. It’s that simple.
    2. The church decided these forms of monarchianism did not fit the data of the NT and the beliefs of the church and so were therefore not approved as orthodox.
    3. We’ve got facts in the NT that cry out for theological explanation: like John 1:1 or 20:31 or 1 Cor 8:4-6. Jesus is called Lord in a way that clearly transcends humanity so how does that exalted status of Jesus relate to belief in one God?
    4. Early christology sought to explain those facts in light of belief in one God.

  • Is there a chance that we are also intended to ‘exist in three parts/persons’ as we are made in His image? Would understanding ourselves as self, word, and spirit help us to understand (of course, incompletely since we are not God nor infinite) what the Trinity may look like also? Or am thinking about this incorrectly?

  • NateW

    Hi Scot. Where do you see Bonhoeffer’s idea of a “suffering God” being revealed in Christ fitting in here? Would you see a difference between saying that Jesus fully manifested the eternal nature of God and that he was a modal manifestation of God? It seems to me that the idea of god’s true eternal nature being revealed (manifested) in human form (in part, as One who creates and gives life by virtue of his own death so that those who are “other” than God can know, be known, and join into love-union within Him) is very scriptural.

    I also think that it seems that it could be convincingly argued that for God to create the universe at all requires that he suffer (from a human perspective at least) as the act of creating space where he is not “all-in-all” (a finite, temporal, “God-vacuum”) is itself an act of self-death on his part, though one that ultimately makes resurrection into new life possible for creation.

    I will wholly admit that these are just one way of speaking about that which is ineffable (but revealed fully in the life, death, resurrection of Christ). Or maybe I’m just a heretic. ; )

    Sometimes I wonder if the ancient creeds aren’t more about limiting what can be positively stated about God than about saying what is true about God. Perhaps a working definition of heresy could be something like, “a theological position that attempts to circumvent the mystery of God by arrogant reliance on human logical understanding.”

  • scotmcknight

    Bonhoeffer’s idea was developed, as you may know, by Moltmann who sought to combine Eastern Orthodoxy’s Trinity with a theology of the cross. That Jesus “manifests” God is actually a NT expression. What that means though would best be defined as “God incarnate” and not simply a manifestation. So, yes, Jesus reveals the essence of God but that’s not even close to saying the Son is the modal/manifestation of the Father during his earthly days.

  • NateW

    Good thoughts, Nate. If I were to conceptualized myself as “trinitarian” one way I might describe the parts could be, “nature,” (who I am at my core being, that is the “image of God”) “actions” (what I do, moment by moment) and “intent” (the spirit with which I do those things, either Love or selfish ambition/pride). All three must be in proper union. Actions in line with true nature and empowered by pure love.

    Perhaps “nature” is my personhood from God’s perspective (beloved child), my actions define who I am in the eyes of others (or who I try to project myself to be on Facebook), and my intent/will is the person that I know myself to be (if I am willing to truly have eyes to see myself).

    Of course this is crass oversimplification and I don’t mean to put this forward as doctrine. I’m just thinking/wondering out loud along with you. : )

  • Jon G

    My messages keep getting deleted, I’m sorry if this is a repeat…

    Scot, do you see a difference between “heretical” and “unorthodox”? Because I do. Maybe I’m wrong but to me unorthodox carries with it the notion that one is not following “traditional” church teachings – and I’m ok with that. But heretical seems to be a much harsher claim, at least as it has been used in my experience (people in the church aren’t really kind to people like me who don’t believe in the Trinity…it can actually be a very cold and condescending place). It is the kind of term that gets muttered right before someone burns another at the stake and usually it doesn’t refer to breaking from the Church but, rather, breaking from God. I realize you aren’t using it that way and I am not on a stake, but nevertheless the term is divisive and phrases like “people think some goofy things” set up such a scenario. I’ll try to answer your questions in a bit…I’m on the road…

  • Rick

    “Sometimes I wonder if the ancient creeds aren’t more about limiting what can be positively stated about God than about saying what is true about God…Perhaps a working definition of heresy could be something like, “a theological position that attempts to circumvent the mystery of God by arrogant reliance on human logical understanding.”

    I disagree with the first part of your statement, but agree, in part, with the second.

    As Alister McGrath said in his book Heresy, the heresies were actually more restrictive than orthodoxy. Just the concept of Jesus as both God and man, or the idea of the Trinity, are very freeing, rather than “limiting”.

    McGrath also stressed something you pointed out, in that the heresies were attempts to adapt (restrict) the faith to reason.

  • Phil Miller

    Interesting timing on this post for me. I was looking through my library the other day, and I noticed a copy of Greg Boyd’s Oneness Pentecostals and the Trinity that I forgot I had. I started reading through it, and to be honest, I don’t know that I’ll finish it simply because I don’t feel I need to be convinced any further on the Trinitarian position. But I do find it interesting that the group that Boyd is writing in response basically says they are the ones who have the conception of Christ and the Father correct and everyone else is wrong and essentially hellbound because of it.

    And, indeed, if you look at the reviews on Amazon, you’ll see some people who gave the book negative reviews outright say this. So I think that’s the dangerous side of heresies. It’s not so much that the Church as a whole needs to be right for the sake of being right, but, rather, we need to make sure that people are putting stumbling blocks in front of the Gospel.

    I guess it’s interesting to me that there are still people who want to debate about the Trinity. I grew up Pentecostal (AoG) and that was never an environment that emphasized the broader church history (actually, the way many talked about it, you’d think Church history started in the early 1900’s), but even so, something like the Trinitarian nature of God was simply a given. I actually think the fact that there is still room for these kind of debates within certain Protestant circles is one thing that drives people to more traditional expressions of faith. I liken it to going to a physics class and debating something like Newton’s F=ma. It’s been established for so long, that unless there’s very compelling evidence to the contrary, there’s no point in trying to debate about it.

  • The doctrine of the Trinity is so beautiful if held loosly and imaginatively (as a schematic representation of the Reality in which we live and move and have our being) and so ugly if taken to extremes (as in the Athanasian creed). This is not just “God” we’re talking about — it is LIFE — OUR LIFE, GOD’S LIFE — One Life Divine:

    “As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us . . .
    The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be
    one, as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become
    completely one” (John 17:21,22,23).

  • AHH

    Why was patripassianism considered such a nonstarter in the 2nd century? Was it the influence of Greek philosophy where anything resembling change was seen as imperfection?

  • Phil Miller

    I think Platonic thought could be partly to blame, but it’s not necessarily the thought that the Father can suffer or experience emotion that was the biggest issue with patripassianism. It was the idea that the Father was incarnated. So it goes back to modalism.

  • Adam

    Why is it important to avoid heresy? What’s the real consequence here? If you believe in modalism will you go to hell? Are the “right” people required to kill the heretics?

    Jesus himself was condemned as a heretic and that kind of throws a wrench into our ideas of heresies. Much like the “dangerous” type of conversation, I have a hard time taking heretic conversations seriously.

    Isn’t the idea of heresy just another attempt at claiming the judgment seat for ourselves?

  • Phil Miller

    I think the danger is from the opposite direction. Usually it’s the splinter groups who are convinced they are the true Christians and that those who don’t follow their particular heresy are not. So they cause division in that sense.

  • cwillms

    Heavy sigh! More books to add to my list of titles that I should probably read. Scot, I would LOVE to have you list your suggestions for the 10..25..50..whatever number you choose.. top books that all thoughtful laypersons ought to read. I will probably never be able to get a seminary education and I will certainly never be accused of being a theologian but a few years ago I asked myself,,.”What do I truly believe in regard to my faith?” Dangerous question. So, besides the Scriptures what would best contribute to the above? (And if you’ve already posted an answer in the past I’d appreciate the link.)

  • NateW

    Thanks for the clarification. So, modalism sort of paints God like Optimus Prime, transforming from one manifestation (mode) into another according to the functional role he’s presently playing? That is, modalism says that when God is the son, he’s still God, but he’s not the father, sort of like how Optimus Prime is always himself, but some times he takes the form of a truck and others a gun-toting robot?

  • Rick

    I will quote what Allan Bevere wrote today, in which he quotes McGrath’s definition of heresy:

    “A heresy is a doctrine that ultimately destroys, destabilizes, or distorts a mystery rather than preserving it. Sometimes a doctrine that was once thought to defend a mystery actually turns out to subvert it. A heresy is a failed attempt at orthodoxy, whose fault lies not in its willingness to explore possibilities or press conceptual boundaries, but in its unwillingness to accept that it has in fact failed.”
    Bevere continues: “McGrath notes that in theology, doctrine “preserves the central mysteries at the heart of the Christian faith and life” (p. 30). That these central affirmations are mysteries is important. Doctrine is not, nor has it ever been, an attempt to explain and understand God exhaustively, as if that were possible. When St. Augustine says that if we can explain it, it isn’t God, he is not suggesting that theological investigation and doctrinal explications are insignificant and unimportant. He is reminding us “that the human mind struggles and ultimately fails, to cope with the grandeur of God” (p. 29). But while our doctrine cannot disclose God exhaustively in God’s grandeur, it can and must disclose God decisively in his character.”

  • NateW

    Yeah, good point, Phil. The danger is that the gospel is subverted and negated when we start laying heavy burdens of correct knowledge and belief that go beyond the simple Gospel.

  • NateW

    You always have a way of summing up in a couple sentences what I’m thinking but would take me several pages to write down. : )

  • NateW

    “A heresy is a doctrine that ultimately destroys, destabilizes, or distorts a mystery rather than preserving it. Sometimes a doctrine that was once thought to defend a mystery actually turns out to subvert it. A heresy is a failed attempt at orthodoxy, whose fault lies not in its willingness to explore possibilities or press conceptual boundaries, but in its unwillingness to accept that it has in fact failed.”

    I would modify that slightly to say that “…sometimes a doctrine that once served to defend a mystery subverts the mystery when transported into a new context.” I think that its entirely possible for a doctrine to have been “true” in the ears, hearts, and lives of one group of people during a particular time and yet to fail to be “true” when recited to another group of people in another. Place and/or time. Hence the necessity to always be returning to the person of Christ himself, always reforming.

    It’s not that a doctrine “turns out” to be heretical when it was once thought to be orthodox, but that it really can be both true and untrue depending on who’s ears it falls. With every word spoken today being able to be heard by people from all over the world this makes communication of truth seem like an impossible task, but I think that this is only the case if the primary truth we hope to communicate is intellectual rather than Spiritual. The Spirit of love can flow over and through all of our “untrue” words and so by the grace of God our imperfect tongues can carry the good news.

  • Adam

    It sounds good but isn’t this just more justification for saying I’m right and you’re wrong?

    The religious leaders accused Jesus of heresy and killed him for it. Obviously from our perspective Jesus was right and they were wrong, yet he didn’t justify himself.

    I think the path of heresy, both accuser and accused is the wrong path entirely. It’s missing the point. The more we define what is “dangerous” the less likely we are willing to forgive those who persecute us. The very idea of heresy under the reign of christ seems ludicrous.

  • Rick

    “The more we define what is “dangerous” the less likely we are willing to forgive those who persecute us.”
    That is more of a problem with us then, rather than with the concept of actual heresy.

  • Rick

    I don’t disagree with the “always reforming”, but the standards to show that the early church was wrong in its establishment of orthodoxy (and proto-orthodoxy started right away) must be very, very high.
    To say the Holy Spirit was not able to guide the church at this crucial time is a serious charge.
    Likewise, just because a concept is old does not mean it is wrong. Do we have to adapt new language to express it at a new time? Perhaps. But the concept can still be true.

  • Adam

    Kind of. I think the concept of heresy is still about us and our right to judge. I don’t think you can have an accusation of heresy in any fair sense. By that I mean, there is no way that I can accuse someone of heresy and still approach them lovingly.

  • Good point, Nate! The truth cannot be captured in propositions… Doctrine, dogmas, traditions– even the Bible itself –all point to the living Word which is ineffable. That which is effective in the life of one person or one community, may not be effective in the life of another. And, obviously, this can change over time….

  • Thanks, Nate–BTW, I didn’t realize I was returning the complement, above. Nice to find a kindred spirit in these discussions!

  • Phil Miller

    Are you from Minnesota? 🙂 (Google “Minnesota nice” if you don’t get the joke…)

    I don’t think telling someone they’re wrong is always unloving. Sometimes it’s just necessary. Certainly we can find examples of Christians being unloving all over the place. But I don’t think we need to throw out sound doctrine and teaching based on that.

    Also, it’s kind of moot point, but I wouldn’t say Jesus was killed because He was accused of heresy. He was accused of being blasphemous. That is He was accused of making certain claims about Himself.

  • Rick

    The truth, “Doctrine, dogmas, traditions– even the Bible itself” may not, and often do not, express exhaustive truths, but they can express sufficient truths. And often ones that do not change.

  • Adam

    I see a difference between telling someone they are wrong about something and calling them a heretic. Jon G above made a similar distinction between unorthodox and heretic.

    Heretic is a loaded word. It’s meant to be a loaded word. The purpose of labeling someone a heretic was to identify them as a person to be killed. What’s our intention with the word now? I still say it’s used as a word meant to harm and not help. Though we can’t physically kill a person we attempt a character assassination with the word heretic.

  • Phil Miller

    I do agree with you that heretic is a loaded word, and, honestly, I guess throughout this discussion I have been thinking more of labeling certain beliefs as heresies rather than labeling people as heretics. I think I would try to separate the two (beliefs and people) as much as possible.

    Btw, I think another thing I’d point out is that it’s really impossible to have any system of thought where we don’t say some beliefs are good and some are bad. Even a statement like, “I don’t believe we should label any belief heretical or anyone a heretic” is in and of itself a dogma of sorts.

  • Adam

    I’m not trying to say we don’t have doctrines and we don’t have dogma’s. If someone were to say that Jesus was born of a watermelon and a hotdog, I would disagree with them, demonstrate why, and say it is not in agreement with the rest of christianity. I would not call it heresy, nor would I call the belief dangerous. These words of heresy and dangerous are the outcome of a fear based thought process. To me it’s ludicrous. And I think the history of the word heresy is really important. There are direct commands to kill heretics, there are no direct commands to kill fools.

    How about the flip side? What is a truly dangerous belief and why is that belief dangerous? What are the actual consequences for believing something “dangerous”?

  • Phil Miller

    Certainly it doesn’t take too long to think of beliefs that are dangerous… Every now and then you hear of Christians who think it’s wrong to see doctors when they’re sick, and because of it, a child ends up dying. Or the belief that killing in the name of God is certainly a dangerous belief.

    With some of the historic heresies, it can be a bit trickier to find a direct cause and effect, but on some of them you can. One thing that I’ve noticed is that many groups that do have questionable beliefs are not entirely forthcoming about them. And because of that, they are very secretive and the people who grow up in them end being very suspicious of those on the outside.

  • Jon G

    ok, hopefully this thread hasn’t gone cold…

    Scot, I’ll take these one at a time:

    1. Re: Heresy. I don’t think it’s that simple. I think you are thinking of unorthodoxy, not heresy, but even if you were right in your usage you’d still have massive problems that make it not a simple matter. Problems like:

    -Which church fathers? Not all of them were trinitarians.

    -Why do those men get to decide? Do they override the Apostles, who said NOTHING explicit about the Trinity? Are they infallible?

    -Why is the church orthodoxy the last word? Aren’t there numerous other positions the Church has traditionally taken that you don’t agree with? What would you say if all the church fathers agreed that women shouldn’t preach in church?

    2. Re: Monarchianism. I don’t have a reply here. I don’t consider myself a modalist, or a monarchianist…just a person who thinks the Trinity is contradictory in theory and practice. I’ll explain my take on Jesus a bit further down.

    3. Re: facts that are crying out for theological explanation. There are lots of facts about the Trinity that cry out for explanation too, like, how can Jesus be the Father’s son while still eternal? Or why does every NT writer and Jesus himself point towards the Father as God? Does the Trinity answer this question?

    In what sense is the phrase “Son of God” actually a measure of lineage – to the point where people have to come up with a notion that God is 1 but 3? I’m guessing you would say that Jesus isn’t begotten, but then, when you bring in John 20:31, you are clearly looking for an answer to why it is calling Jesus “the Son of God”. So, if that phrase cries out for explanation, and yet we know Jesus is eternal, how does Trinity solve the problem? For my money, the phrase “Son of God” ought to be replaced with “Messiah” or “anointed one” because that’s what it was referring to. The phrase Son of God leaves us talking out of two sides of our mouths when we claim that Jesus is God’s “Son” and yet eternal and yet God at the same time. By the way, I think it’s a travesty that people have taken the word “begotten” out of John 3:16. It’s in the text, it should be in the translation.

    You bring up 1 Cor 8:4-6…how does Trinity solve this one? It says that there is only 1 God – the Father. And then it subordinates Jesus as the Father’s vessel. The Trinity is a claim to equality and oneness. Jesus was called Lord in a transcendent way, I agree. But that’s because Jesus, AS God the Father, was transcendent.

    The body people saw walking around was Jehovah in the flesh. Nate kind of brought this up earlier, but I see God in Jesus in the same way I picture Scot in Scot’s body or Jon in Jon’s body. We are not merely flesh and blood. “We” ARE the symbiotic relationship between our spirits and our bodies. Take one away and *poof* there’s no more “Scot”. So, I don’t picture Jesus as a “mode” of God or a ‘manifestation” of God. I see Jesus as the “body” of God. And the HS as the “spirit” of God just like I am made of both Jon’s body and Jon’s spirit. And there is still a relationship between the two. My body affects my spirit and vice versa. You could even, some days, find them “talking” to each other. But still, I’m ONE Jon and you’re ONE Scot.

    4. Re: Early christology seeking to explain those facts in light of monotheism. I agree. That doesn’t mean they got it right or that they get the last word. Neither do we. God is something we will always be learning more about. Therefore, any lines we draw about God need to be seen in light of our ineptitude to comprehend him. Sure, there are things that we can feel confindent in , but nothing we are “certain” of.

    I’m sorry this came so late and there’s no way I can fully discuss here all I’m offering in the above comments. I would just like to see an openness to discuss these issues and phrases like “heresy” and referring to people’s beliefs as “goofy” leave little room for open discussion.

    Still, I love ya brother. Please don’t be mad at me for being “goofy”. 🙂

  • Andrew Dowling

    So when did the Holy Spirit leave? 400? 800? It doesn’t make much sense to believe that the Holy Spirit ensured the Church got everything right the first 3-400 years and then “peaced out” . . especially from Protestants.
    Also, when did Nate say that if a concept was old it was wrong? To my understanding he was simply saying that things change within different periods and contexts. The Church shed way too much blood over a theologically constructed idea like the Trinity. I don’t necessarily have an issue with the Trinitarian concept, but I certainly don’t believe it’s an “essential belief” or that Jesus and the Apostles held any conceptions of the Trinity as we understand it.

  • NateW

    Thanks Andrew. I certainly did not mean to say that old beliefs are wrong, that the church fathers were wrong, or that the Holy Spirit could not lead them to truth. I was actually trying to stick up for those who’s orthodox doctrines are questioned by saying that the need to reform doctrines today does not mean that the fathers of the original doctrinal conceptions “got it wrong.” Doctrine is a servant of Truth, not truth itself.

  • NateW

    Rick, I hear you man. Truth doesn’t change, ever, but language and cultures do and so doctrines must be reformed and restated when they no longer communicate the essence of Christ to a given body of people. That isn’t to say that they are “wrong” in themselves, but that the Truth originally communicated may now be buried beneath cultural and/or linguistic baggage. We have to continually be holding the doctrines up to the person of Christ Himself.

  • Rick

    Nate and Andrew. Good thoughts and feedback. I would advocate that we build upon the orthodox doctrines that have been established before us. That does not mean we don’t examine them in light of Scripture, or update them with our new context, but unless something earth-shattering is learned, we continue to mature from there.

    C. Michael Patton refers to this as Reforming Orthodoxy, and he puts it this way:
    “This is the belief that the ultimate authority for the Christian faith is found only in the Scriptures (sola Scriptura) and that orthodoxy is a progressive development of the Church’s understanding of the Scriptures. Like paleo-orthodoxy, progressive orthodoxy seeks the consensus of the Church throughout time for the core essential theological issues, finding most of these in the early church expressed in the ecumenical councils. But it also believes that our understanding of these issues can and may mature and reform both through articulation and added perspective. This “maturing” does not amount to any essential change, but only progressive development as theological issues are brought to the table of church history through controversy and exegetical discovery. In other words, once orthodoxy has been established, its antithetical opposite cannot be entertained. Orthodoxy can only be advanced.”