The Church Councils, part 1
Aug 29, 2019
While the virgin birth of Jesus was a teaching from the earliest times in the church, it was used mainly to prove the uniqueness of the Messiah without elevating Him to the equal status in a Godhead Trinity. Long before there were any serious discussions about the Godhead status of the Holy Spirit, church leaders pondered the relationship between the Father and His Son.
The first century was dominated by apostolic teaching, and so it retained its Hebrew perspective and viewpoint. But as the gospel achieved greater success among the Greeks than among the Jews, it was inevitable that sheer numbers would overcome the ability of the church to train them to think outside of their culture. By the first half of the second century, the Hebrew concepts and patterns had succumbed to Greek culture.
Ironically, many church leaders assisted in this process by trying to adapt the gospel to Greek culture and make it more acceptable to their main audience.
In the first 40 years of Christianity, the church in Jerusalem attempted to remain a sect of Judaism. Its main leader, James, was a Nazarite, which meant that he was allowed to enter the sanctuary to pray and intercede for Jerusalem. It was on one of those occasions in 62 A.D., upon exiting the temple, that he was questioned about Jesus. When he gave a positive testimony, the people stoned him to death.
Soon afterward, the Jewish revolt began, and the church escaped to Pella, avoiding the calamity of which Jesus had warned in Matthew 23-25. The destruction of Jerusalem itself settled the question about whether the Old Jerusalem or the New Jerusalem was the capital of Christ’s Kingdom. The Apostle Paul’s view in Galatians 4 prevailed until the 20th century.
The Loss of the Law
When the supremacy of the earthly Jerusalem was discredited, along with its sacrificial system, the law itself began to be discounted and set aside. Fewer and fewer Christians studied the law, leaving Christianity vulnerable to ignorance as to the definition of sin (1 John 3:4). Likewise, its prophetic revelation began to be lost. The great divorce between Judaism and Christianity essentially resulted in a new marriage between the Church and Plato.
Perhaps the most significant loss was the distinction between the Old and New Covenants. They tended to retain the Ten Commandments as a general outline of moral behavior, but they failed to view the Commandments in terms of New Covenant promises. Hence, they “kept” the Commandments as mandates for Christian behavior, much as the people did during Old Testament times. They forgot that “You shall not steal,” when viewed as a promise of God, meant that God Himself took the responsibility upon Himself to change our hearts so that we would not steal.
This led to a religion of works, powered by the Greek emphasis on man’s so-called “free will.” Once every man was made fully responsible for his own salvation, it was easy for the later Church Councils to condemn “heretics” to death, rather than pray that God would reveal the truth to them by the working of the Holy Spirit.
Meanwhile, Simon Magus, calling himself “The Great Power of God” (Acts 8:10), heard the gospel from Philip, Peter, and John. He was impressed with their power to impart the Holy Spirit to men and with the miracles they performed, so he offered money to acquire the same power. Peter rebuffed him, telling him in Acts 8:21,
21 You have no part or portion to this matter, for your heart is not right before God.
According to early church accounts, Simon then became the chief apostle of a new religion called Gnosticism, in which he challenged the apostles’ authority and their teachings. Because both Simon Magus and Simon Peter had the same name, modern Gnostics claim that they were actually the same man and that Gnosticism was and is the true form of Christianity.
Simon Magus blended the teachings of the Greek, Egyptian, and Persian religion with some elements of Christianity, and it soon became the church’s main rival. If the church had been able to remain on its Hebrew foundation, it may not have been overwhelmed by the Gnostics. Christianity and Gnosticism may have become one and the same, and the apostolic writings would have been lost, altered, or simply reinterpreted in Gnostic terms.
This, in fact, happened with the Gospel of John, which was claimed by the Gnostics as their own quite early. Of course, to do so required serious reinterpretation of key words and concepts, but modern Gnostic teaching shows that they have done this very thing.
John’s concept of the Logos was not so different from the concept first set forth by Heraclitus (535-475 B.C.). He defined it as the organizing force behind an ever-changing universe. A century later, his successors, Plato and Aristotle saw it as the principle that gave life to all creation and the faculty of reason to men.
Plato did not view the demiurge as an evil god but merely as a lesser god who had created matter. Only later (in Gnosticism) did that lesser god take a more devilish persona. Yet the philosophers framed their concept of the Logos within the context of matter being created evil and the soul being spiritual and good. The Gnostics, in fact, said that Yahweh was the evil demiurge responsible for creating such inferior matter. Hence, they drove a wedge between Yahweh and the people, teaching them to pursue a mystical, spiritual existence that was divorced from the biblical God and His “evil” matter.
Philo, the Jewish philosopher from Alexandria in the early first century, blended Judaism with Greek philosophy, and many Christians later followed his example. Philo viewed the Logos as an angel of God. He tried to prove that the Hebrew davar (“Word”) was the same as the Greek Logos. While the Hebrew davar was indeed the linguistic equivalent of logos, the philosophical meanings of the terms were quite different.
Further, the idea that a lesser god (the demiurge) was the creator of matter denied the Logos as having anything to do with the creation of the world. After all, how could Divine Reason create something as inferior as matter? So the Greek philosophers did not understand that the earth was created to express the glory of God in a cosmic marriage. They did not believe that the material world could ever bear witness to heaven and to spiritual things as a whole.
Above all, they did not believe that the word could become flesh, as John 1:14 says. Instead, the Gnostics taught that Christ was an emanation of the good Supreme God. As such, He would never take upon Himself a fleshly body. The good God, to them, was opposed to the evil demiurge who had created matter. Hence, Christ had been sent to save us from the clutches of the evil god and to help men separate themselves from evil matter.
The humanity of Christ, then, was denied outright by the Gnostics, who taught that Christ only appeared to have flesh. Yet His flesh was unreal or perhaps other-worldly, an illusion of flesh.
The Gnostics adopted the Greek view of matter and the demiurge, building into their religious system an opposite view of that which is taught in Scripture. Gnosticism held an advantage over Christianity, however, because the Gnostic view was more compatible with Greek assumptions. It was much easier for a pagan Greek to accept Gnosticism than Christianity, as the miraculous signs in Christianity faded over time.
The earliest trend in the church was Hellenization, or the adoption of Greek philosophy into Christianity, in much the same manner as had been done earlier in Judaism—particularly among the Sadducees. But the Gnostics had specialized in such Hellenization, so they had reason to claim to be the first and “originals” to receive the “truth.” Hebrew Christianity was seen as lagging behind the times.
The church fathers widely condemned Gnosticism, but as they trended toward Hellenization, they found it more and more difficult to distinguish themselves and to point out their differences with their Gnostic adversaries.
One of the earliest concepts to find root in portions of the church was Docetism, which separated matter from spirit in the nature of Jesus Christ. In other words, it essentially split the nature of Jesus Christ into two distinct parts: human and divine.
It was popularized by Marcion (85-160 A.D.). He taught that Christ was good and was therefore entirely spiritual. Christ only appeared to be physical. Jesus only appeared to need food and clothing, only appeared to become tired and hungry, and only appeared to suffer on the cross. He taught that Jesus was not truly a man but was a spiritual being clothed in the form of man.
We do not know if the Apostle John met Marcion personally, but John died in the year 100, when Marcion was about 15 years old. Marcion developed his philosophy shortly after John died.
About the same time, Cerinthus began to teach that Jesus and Christ were two different beings, one human and the other divine. This was another attempt to explain the nature of Jesus Christ under an assumption of Docetism. To Cerinthus, Jesus was begotten by Joseph and given birth through Mary, while Christ descended upon Him at His baptism. When Jesus was crucified, he said, Christ left Him so that the human Jesus alone experienced death.
The third important deviation from Christianity came through Valentinian (100-160 A.D.), the most popular of the Christian Gnostic teachers. He taught that Jesus descended from heaven in an incorruptible human body, born of the Virgin Mary. The eastern branch of Valentinianism taught that the Christ joined Jesus at His birth and that Christ possessed an incorruptible human body given to Him by the Aeon named Acamoth. The western branch taught that Christ joined Jesus only at His baptism and that it was the evil demiurge that gave Jesus His physical body.
The eastern school of Valentinianism was only partly docetic, while the western school was fully so. Valentinian himself never taught that Christ only appeared to suffer on the cross, so his view was established in the east and was not so different from orthodox Christianity as it developed later. The later Trinitarians found it difficult to distinguish themselves from Valentinianism.
The problem with eastern Valentinianism was that they taught that while Jesus experienced death, Christ experienced only the grief of death. In other words, they maintained docetic thought by continuing to separate Jesus from Christ and to consider each to be a separate and distinct nature, one fleshly and one divine. By contrast, Paul distinguished between spirit, soul, and body but considered them to be three parts of one being.
Docetism itself, being rooted in Greek philosophy, separated body from a spiritual soul, whereas Hebrew thinking distinguished between a fleshly soul and the spirit. The other main difference, of course, was if matter was created inherently evil (Greek) or if matter was good but was invaded by sin afterward. These philosophical differences determined the goal of history and the religious path to attain that goal.
All three of these teachings above were rooted in Docetism, which separated matter from spirit and which found it necessary to separate Jesus from Christ. These teachings must have been developing toward the end of John’s life, which caused the apostle to write in 1 John 4:1-3,
1 Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God; because many false prophets have gone out into the world. 2 By this you know the Spirit of God; every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God; 3 and every spirit that does not confess Jesus is not from God; and this is the spirit of the antichrist, of which you have heard that it is coming, and now it is already in the world.
John understood that the Hebrew word basar, “flesh,” also meant “good news; gospel.” To eat the flesh of Jesus (John 6:53) was to believe and assimilate the gospel of Christ. Hence, Gnostic “faith” in a non-flesh Logos is “the spirit of antichrist.”
We see, then, that the spirit of antichrist (in its docetic form), came into the church through the Gnostics, even as in earlier days the spirit of antichrist had followed Absalom’s example in overthrowing the Anointed One and usurping the throne of David. The Jewish version of antichrist, which rejected the Son while claiming to adhere to the Father (1 John 2:22), was but a different form of antichrist from the Gnostic version. Both rejected Christ in their own way.
This is part 1 of a series titled "The Church Councils" To view all parts, click the link below.