Last night I watched the movie Da Vinci Code staring Tom Hanks. It got me to thinking. It presents one of two positions that were deemed heretical by the church, namely, Jesus was a mere man and not God. The movie goes so far as to proclaim a rather far fetched fantasy that not only was Jesus mere man, but that he was married and had a child. The other heretical position was that the Son of God never actually was a man, that he never became flesh. Both ideas have their foundations in the fact that it is very hard for us to understand how Jesus could be both fully God and fully human.
It is interesting that by the end of the first century as seen in the writings of the apostle John, the prevalent thought that the church had to fight was the concept that Jesus never was fully human, that he never was flesh and bones. This concept came to full fruition in the Docetists during the second century. They taught that Jesus only appeared to be human but was never actually flesh. It was as if Jesus was a ghost of some sorts and an unknown man was actually crucified by the Romans.
The Docetists were a part of a larger group called the Gnostics. Gnostic thought was based a lot on Plato’s thinking. Spirit and flesh were completely separate and our salvation comes when we can become 100% spiritual and slough off the flesh. The name Gnostic comes from the Greek work gnosis which translated means knowledge. They teach it is by the knowledge of God that we can become free.
The Gnostic christians taught that if there was an actual man named Jesus, the Son entered him at some point to take on the role of the Messiah but the Son of God was not ever a man – however, they also taught (or teach as there are still some Gnostics) that the Son of God was not actually God either, rather he was the first created – the first Aeon as they would call him.
The Gospel of Mary which the movie refers to was a Gnostic writing, probably written some time during the second or early third century. This is where the movie kind of messes up regarding the Gospel of Mary. The man Jesus was a secondary, two bit part in their beliefs. It was the Aeon, the Son of God, the Spiritual being that was to be worshiped (if anything). Gnostic thought would not have cared about any physical relations, only spiritual ones. To their way of thinking, if there was a man named Jesus, it wouldn’t have mattered if he did marry Mary Magdalene and had children – the Gnostics certainly would not have tried to maintain his blood line since it was irrelevant and possibly sacrilegious. To the Gnostics which followed Christian beliefs (and most likely, there were Gnostics which totally rejected any Christian thought), it was the Aeon that mattered and not the flesh.
Gnostic teachings influenced a lot of other third century heresies including Dynamic Monarchianism, Adoptionist, Modalist, and Arianism (not the Nazi stuff – theology named after a man named Arius). All basically deny both the deity and humanity of the Son of God to one degree or another. Some taught like the earlier Gnostics that He was the firstborn created. Others taught he was a man that because of his obedience to God was adopted by God to become the Son transcending his flesh or had his soul replaced by the Son of God.
All of these beliefs come about because of our inability to get our head around one of the foundational theologies of the Church, namely, the Trinity: one God but three distinct persons, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. This inability results in anti-Trinitarian beliefs even today. The Unitarian church and the “Jesus Only” movement are both examples of Christians who have rejected Trinitarian teachings. And of course, there are many who insists that Jesus was only a man, a good teacher, maybe even a prophet but not God.
The early church struggled over these theological concepts and I believe got it right as led by the Holy Spirit. The Trinity isn’t an easy doctrine to understand but in the end, can we truly understand who God is? It is when we try to put God into understandable boundaries that we reduce God to a god – merely human for all that matters.
I will continue this study in future posts as we examine who Jesus was and is and is to come. If I can find my copy of Harold O. J. Brown’s book, Heresies: the Image of Christ in the Mirror of Heresy and Orthodoxy from the Apostles to the Present, I will certainly use it as a guide and outline as well as other resources at my disposal such as Systematic Theology: A Pentecostal Perspective, ed. Stanley M. Horton and the classic Institutes of the Christian Religion by John Calvin.
- I Am the Light: John 8:12
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