If, as some claim, the Bible interprets itself, much of the history of Christianity makes no sense, as it consists, in large measure, of men arguing over what it means. One of the first such disputes, once the Christians had been thrown out of the Synagogues, came as Christians began to grapple with the implications of Christ being the logos and the sarx – the Word and the flesh. If the words of Holy Scripture were that easy to understand, then the first few centuries of Christianity’s existence make no sense. Let us examine some of the early disputes to get a flavour of how men read Scripture; you may well end by concluding that there are no new heresies, just recycled old ones.
In Eusebius’ history, we read about the Ebionites. Some of these denied Jesus was anything save a very holy man, and they denied entirely the Virgin birth. Others did not go that far, but they all denied that he ‘pre-existed, being God, Word, and Wisdom’. Sabellius of Rome thought that Father, Son and Holy Ghost, were but three aspects of the one God – which put Christ at the other end of the spectrum from the Ebionites – Christ was fully divine. This belief, often called after its founder, Sabellianism, was foundational to the thought of Paul of Samosata, who was bishop of Antioch from 260-272).
Antioch was one of the early centres of Christianity – indeed it was where we were first called Christians. Paul taught what has become knows as “monarchianism”. Paul was trying to refute the claims of Jews and others that Christians were polytheists, but as so often, an attempt to do something positive, had negative effects. In denying the idea that Father, Son and Holy Ghost were three Gods, and in asserting they were one, Paul fell into error by insisting that the three members of what would become known as the Trinity were three faces of the One God. An understandable thought, but one which bore in it serious errors once men began to consider it.
Paul read Scripture as meaning that Jesus was just a man until he was adopted by God at His baptism in the Jordan – hence his line of thought was called ‘adoptionist monarchianism’. He taught that the logos was subordinate to God – which led to a line of thought called ‘subordinationism’, out of which Arianism (about which more later) came.
Antioch was one of the centres of early Christian thought, and it tended toward an emphasis on the humanity of Christ, and whilst acknowledging that He was divine, it tended towards some form of adoptionism. There is no doubt one could read many of the verses of the Bible this way, but as Justin Martyr (second century) and Tertulian (third century) both argued, this failed to explain how the Word could have been in the beginning with God and have been God – neither dd it explain how the Word became flesh.
The best of the Antiochene theologians was Theodore of Mopsuestia (c.350-428), whose thought we considered yesterday, and who fell into the error of emphasising Christ’s humanity to the extent that he downplayed the divinity.