During our last Table Talk gathering before Christmas, which came hot on the heels of our conversations about salvation and atonement, we began to discuss the question, “Who is Jesus?” We thought about how we might respond in a scenario in which a person, perhaps from another country and from a different cultural context, sits down next to one of us and says, “I’ve heard a person named “Jesus” mentioned on the television. I’ve never heard of him before and wondered if you could tell me who he is?” We considered three basic approaches to handling the situation.

One possibility is to talk in historical terms and to describe the Biblical narrative in categories of creation, sin and redemption, describing the role of Jesus in atonement. The tricky problem of differentiating the Jesus of history from the Jesus of the Biblical narrative (i.e. Jesus as interpreted by his early followers) was raised as a potential problem in using this approach. The issue here, in brief, is that some modern theologians take the position that the Christ of faith and the historic person of Jesus of Nazareth are different. Kant, for example, saw the Christian creed as a description of the ideal, not the historical, Jesus. Others assert that the Christology of the synoptic Gospels is not reconcilable with the Christology of John, the Christology of Paul or the Christology that arose from the early ecumenical councils.

A second possibility is to talk in terms of personal religious experience and to interpret that experience in the light of the person of Jesus. One problem with this approach is that individual religious experience may vary significantly and so may not provide a good point of contact for a meaningful conversation. A third possibility is to talk in categories associated with the philosophy of language and to reach a point in the conversation in which concepts developed by the early Wittgenstein are reached: for anything of true importance it becomes necessary to step beyond the limits of language and simply show what truly matters. In the person of Jesus, God stepped beyond the limits of language as expressed by the prophets and so on, and simply showed God’s own Presence to the world. This approach may be the most circuitous and so its complexity might not be helpful in a preliminary conversation with an individual to whom all the terms and concepts are new and unusual.

Our conversation led us to the point where we came to agreement (this is not a particularly common event in our group and so is worthy of note!) that an adequate description of Jesus as we understand him has to include the concept of incarnation. The Christology of Paul may be helpful in this regard as Paul most clearly makes the case that Jesus is both human and divine – both man and God. Paul writes of Jesus in human terms repeatedly (e.g. as being “manifested in the flesh” – 1 Tim 3:16; possessing a “body of flesh” – Col 1:22; and so on) and also as divine (Paul describes Jesus as “Son of God”, an expression that he uses to elevate Jesus above Aaron, Moses and the Prophets, to show Jesus as superior to angels, and to position Jesus at the right hand of the Father, e.g. Heb 1:3, 14). Paul asserts that Jesus differs in his humanity from the rest of humankind in two ways: Jesus is sinless (1 Cor 5:21, Gal 2:17 and so on) and Jesus represents the whole of humanity in an archetypal sense as the second Adam (Rom, 5:12-21; 1 Cor 15:45-9).

We spoke briefly of the early Christological heresies and the development of a “mainstream Christology” within the tradition that asserts that Jesus is “fully human and fully divine”. Some of the early heresies, as I undersatnd them, are summarized as follows:

ARIANISM is the heresy that Jesus is not divine, and Christ was a created being (subordinate to God the Father). In this scheme of things, Christ had been the first created person. (Promoted by Arius, an Alexandrian priest, c 250-336 A.D. )

ADOPTIONISM is the heresy that Jesus was the adopted son of God, and NOT co-eternal with God the Father. (It is also known as Dynamic Monarchism). According to this error, Jesus was elevated to godhood either at His baptism or after His resurrection

DOCETISM is derived from the Greek term dokeo, which means to “seem” or “appear”. Docetism being the heresy that:
a.) Jesus was God the Father and only appeared to be human, and/or
b.) Jesus didn’t really die on the cross but was replaced there by Simon of Cyrene or by Judas Iscariot. (Some Moslems believe that Simon died in place of Jesus. There was also a Gnostic variant of Docetism. )

APOLLINARIANISM is the heresy that Christ took on only a fleshly human nature, and not full humanity. (So-called because it was originally promoted by Apollinaris the Younger (c. 310-c. 390), bishop of Laodicea in Syria). Apollinaris taught that Jesus had a divine mind and divine soul, but not a human mind or human soul. He conceded that Jesus had a human body; yet a spiritual one not fully human.

EUTYCHIANISM is the heresy that Jesus had neither a human nature nor a divine nature, but a third kind. This “theantropic” nature was part-God and part-human. A combined human/divine being not fully God or fully human.

NESTORIANISM is the heresy that Christ’s two natures (human and divine) are two different persons in one and not two natures inseparably joined in one person. (Nestorius was Bishop of Constantinople in 428 A.D.)

EBIONISM is the heresy that Jesus was a created being and not God. A prophet, perhaps even an angel, but in no way divine.

GNOSTICISM – promoters of this view were Simon Magus, Marcion, Saturninus, Cerinthus and Basilides. The dating of its origin is uncertain but it was the most ancient, predating Christ. This comes from the word gnosis meaning to know. This was a philosophical system built on Greek philosophy that taught matter was evil and the Spirit was good. They taught docetism which promoted a clear separation between the material and spiritual world. Christian Gnostics said that because matter was evil, God could not really incarnate in a human body, he only appeared in human form and only appeared to suffer; it was an illusion.

SABELLIANISM (Modalism, patripassionism) Sabellius, Praxeus, Noetus, Epigonus said the one God reveals himself in three modes of being. Although Dynamic modalism said that the deity was limited to the father alone Modalistic Monarchianism deified the Son also. Saying the unity of god is one essence that could be interchangeable as the Father, Son, Spirit.

MONOPHYSITISM is the heresy that the human nature of Christ was swallowed by the divine nature to create a new third nature – a tertium quid.

The position that Jesus is “fully human and fully divine” has been, and continues to be, the subject of much debate. Hegel, for example, saw Christ not as the actual incarnation of God in Jesus of Nazareth, but as a symbol of God’s incarnation in humanity at large. Schleiermacher saw Christ as the perfect revelation of God (which is not the same as seeing Christ as God incarnate). Opinions about exactly who Jesus is continue to cover a wide range.

We wondered if it is possible to discover how Jesus thought of himself. Authors such as N.T. Wright
argue that the self-understanding of Jesus becomes visible through his words and actions. Thus, Jesus claims for himself the role of Torah (“you have heard it said, but I say to you….”), the role of the Temple (“your sins are forgiven….”) and so on. Through these claims Jesus sought to reconstitute Israel (hence the symbolic twelve disciples) around himself in order to usher in the reality of the Kingdom Of God.

Jesus used the title “Son of man” in reference to himself more than any other title. His use showed some variation in meaning (e.g. sometimes simply as “man” – Matt 8:20) but in essence seems to be an allusion to Daniel 7:13 where the “Son of man” is a heavenly figure, both an individual and a representative of the people of God. Jewish apocalyptic writing associates the “Son of man” with preexistence and with one who comes at “the end of time” as judge.

In returning to the central idea of incarnation, we saw this as a means of allowing encounter with God and as a means for God’s love to be expressed in human terms. Perhaps more than any other single idea, the notion that the incarnation made possible an encounter with the Trinitarian God that invites humankind into relationship with the divine seemed to resonate with those present. And at Christmas, what better time to see the centrality of Christ in one’s relationship with God?

Merry Christmas to bloggers everywhere!


  1. Brad

    I wonder if those heresies should be discussed using the past tense: i.e. “Arianism was the heresy” rather than “Arianism is the heresy”. Our discussion, as well as previous ones, revealed that many of us hold varying Christological positions. The Church today is not as concerned with demanding a uniform Christology; thus, many of us would probably feel uncomfortable labeling another a heretic. Of course, many of us would also have to lable ourselves heretics.

  2. Rob R

    I believe monophytism (or a similar claim that Jesus had only one nature) is still held amongst some Orthodox churches.

  3. Julian A. Davies

    Hi Rob: I’m not sure of the accuracy of the following, but one web site says, “Monophytism remained prevalent in many places until around the eighth century; today, the only Monophysite groups left are a group in Syria and the Coptic church of Egypt.” The web site in question is this one.

  4. Julian A. Davies

    Hi Brad…….interesting point on the tense to be associated with “heresies”. As with many words, the meaning of “heresy” has drifted around over the years. Although not a definitive source, Easton’s classic old (1897) Bible Dictionary says:

    Heresy – from a Greek word signifying (1) a choice, (2) the opinion chosen, and (3) the sect holding the opinion. In the Acts of the Apostles (5:17; 15:5; 24:5, 14; 26:5) it denotes a sect, without reference to its character. Elsewhere, however, in the New Testament it has a different meaning attached to it. Paul ranks “heresies” with crimes and seditions (Gal. 5:20). This word also denotes divisions or schisms in the church (1 Cor. 11:19). In Titus 3:10 a “heretical person” is one who follows his own self-willed “questions,” and who is to be avoided. Heresies thus came to signify self-chosen doctrines not emanating from God (2 Pet. 2:1).

    So, I guess I should have said whether I was using “heresy” as “choice” or “heresy” as “…not emanating from God” and then that would have helped with the tense issue, I suspect. Langauge is so tough!

  5. Julian A. Davies

    Hey Brad – I’m in the midst of reading “A Generous Orthodoxy” by Brian McLaren who writes:

    “Where there has been a diversity of opinion in the past, the winners label previous divergencies as heretical, unorthodox and unchristian, leaving the impression for their descendants that everyone everywhere under the banner of orthodoxy has always agreed with them. In that light, orthodoxy might seem to follow those who fight the hardest and perhaps the dirtiest. Not a pleasant thought.”

    McLaren has a way of linking orthodoxy to orthopraxis that I find quite helpful. For example, in regard to the Trinity, which we have discussed previously, he writes:

    “…the value of understanding the Trinity is to love and honor and serve the Trinity, and … allegedly right Trinitarian opinions that do not lead to divine adoration are worth little. More, this view would assert that so-called orthodox understandings of the Trinity that don’t lead so-called orthodox Christians to love their neighbors in the name of the Trinity (including those neighbors who don’t properly understand the Trinity)are more or less worthless, which trivializes their orthodoxy.”

    What do you think??????????

  6. Brad

    Those are intriguing ideas requiring more extensive thought. They raise more questions for me: Do the Gospels depict Jesus being more concerned with orthopraxis than orthodoxy? Can we judge theology against its practical results as demonstrated through the lives of its adherants? Should an unorthodox doctrine be considered “heretical” (in the negative sense) even if its application directs one to love his neighbors?

  7. Rick Gaillardetz

    A few further reflections on the incarnation. I think it is important for us to avoid the common tendency to imagine Jesus’ divinity as something added to his humanity. Too many of us think of the two natures of Christ as if they were two chemical elements being poured into one beaker (my apologies in advance to Julian for the weak chemistry analogy!). But that would suggest that Jesus was simply another example of a common mythologial figure, the half-god, half man. Evidence of this view is often heard when people say something like: “When Jesus wept at the news of Lazarus’ death–that was his humanity, but when he raised Lazarus from the dead–that was his divinity.” I sometimes refer to this as “light switch Jesus” because it is a view that imagines that Jesus “toggles” between his humanity and his divinity. The mystery of the incarnation lies in the claim that Jesus was wholly divine and wholly human; not one person comprised of two parts. Perhaps we can imagine the divinity of Christ, not as something added to Jesus’ humanity but as a reality realized in and through Jesus’ full humanity. Jesus was and is the fullness of what it means to be human, the definitive and eschatological human, the new human, the primordial image for all of humanity. As such, Jesus was at the same time, fully divine. Jesus then functions as the human face of God. God’s divinity is made manifest uniquely and unsurpassably in and through Jesus’ full humanity.

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