The great hymn writer Charles Wesley once wrote:
Veiled in flesh the Godhead see;
Hail th’incarnate Deity,
Pleased with us in flesh to dwell,
Jesus our Emmanuel. (source)
This is a most beautiful and theologically rich line, but it’s not without some historical controversy. I’m referring to how we understand the person of Jesus. In these few words, Wesely has articulated the orthodox view: Jesus is the incarnate Deity. He is the 2nd Person of the Trinity pleased with us in flesh to dwell. He is God with us. In song, this is an articulation of what theologians call the hypostatic union – that Jesus is 100% God and 100% man, two distinct natures in one person.
Admittedly, this is a bit more mindblowing than we give it credit for the one time a year we sing Christmas songs. In fact, I might make a plug here on the necessity of preaching and teaching on this truth more than just around Christmas time. Both the full divinity and full humanity of Jesus is essential to the Christian faith. If we diminish either we produce a view of Jesus that is both less than Scriptural and less than saving. Furthermore, this hypostatic union takes place in the womb of Mary. Jesus did not take on flesh during His birth but at conception!
Historically then, there have been about 5 major errors associated with Jesus becoming man. There are more than these 5 (see Nestorianism for example), but these are what I’m calling the “main” errors we must watch out for. Don’t be a heretic for Christmas (or any time of the year). As a life goal, seek to never have some sort of view of Jesus named after you as it will probably result in someone writing a negative blog post about you in the future.
Here we go:
Here’s the “biggest” in the sense that it’s probably the most well known and most ascribed to heresy today: Arianism. Arianism is denying the full divinity of Jesus. It is calling Jesus “a god” but less than equal with God the Father. As Arius himself said: “The Father existed before the Son. There was a time when the Son did not exist. Therefore, the Son was created by the Father. Therefore, although the Son was the highest of all creatures, he was not of the essence of God.”*
Both Jehovah Witnesses and Mormons ascribe to a form of Arianism in the sense that they deny the full divinity of Jesus as being equal with the Father.
Docetism says that Jesus only appeared to have a human body. He was fully divine but never actually took on human flesh. Docetism actually precedes Arianism and was written against by the apostle John in 1 John (see 1 John 1:1).
Unlike Docetism, Modalism is still widely held today in many churches, mainly in Oneness Pentecostalism. This view may also be held by individuals in an otherwise orthodox church who don’t rightly understand the Trinity. Modalism says that God manifests Himself in three “modes”: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. These “modes” are not persons and are not happening simultaneously. God is the Father, then He’s the Son, then He’s the Holy Spirit. Perhaps this sounds like a minor deviation, but it carries massive ramifications. First, the Bible doesn’t present God in this way. Second, we don’t have a truly relational God apart from the Trinity. In fact, you cannot logically have God at all apart from the Trinity (Read more on that here)!
You might say that Apollinarianism is the “opposite” of Arianism in that it affirms the full Godness of Christ while denying His humanity. It states that Jesus is 100% God but not quite 100% man because He did not possess a human mind. Jesus really did come in the flesh, but he only had one mind, the Divine mind – so said Apollinarius. In other words, Jesus did not become a human like you or I but a sort of “superhuman”. In Apollinarianism Jesus was not made like us in every way (Heb. 2:17). Gregory of Nazianzus (330 – 389) wrote of this view that “If anyone has put his trust in [Jesus] as a Man without a human mind, he is really bereft of mind, and quite unworthy of salvation.”**
Eutychius (378 – 454) taught that Jesus had one nature that consisted of a fusion between the divine and human nature that resulted in a “third” nature that could not rightly be considered divine or human. If this were true, Jesus would be unable to be our perfect mediator.
Have Yourself an Orthodox Little Christmas
Reviewing these heresies pertaining to the person of Christ is not meant to scare you from thinking deeply about Jesus. In fact, you should saturate yourself with Scripture in order to think rightly about the person of Christ this Christmas (and year round!). What we have to understand is that a Jesus who is not fully God and not fully man could never rescue us from our sins.
If Jesus is not fully God He cannot perfectly represent God to us. We cannot know God without God Himself revealing Himself to us. Furthermore, He cannot bear the full weight of God’s wrath against our sin. Only the eternal God can bear the penalty for our sin against Him. If He’s not fully man He cannot perfectly represent us to God. He cannot atone for our sins without possessing a fully human nature. Without Jesus being fully God and fully man, He cannot be our perfect mediator between God and man.
Hopefully, thinking through this rightly will help you see the ministry of Jesus in the gospels in a whole new light. What we see in the gospels is a real man doing really humanly things (eating, sleeping, talking, learning, growing, not knowing the time of his return, etc) without sin. And we also see this real man doing Divine things (healing the sick, raising the dead, forgiving sin, etc.). Oh, the wonder of the hypostatic union!
Behold the God-Man! Worship the King.
*J.D. Douglas, “Arius,” ed. J.D. Douglas and Philip W. Comfort, Who’s Who in Christian History (Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House, 1992), 35–36.
**Gregory Nazianzen, “Select Letters of Saint Gregory Nazianzen,” in S. Cyril of Jerusalem, S. Gregory Nazianzen, ed. Philip Schaff and Henry Wace, trans. Charles Gordon Browne and James Edward Swallow, vol. 7, A Select Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, Second Series (New York: Christian Literature Company, 1894), 440.