“Heresy” is an understandably dirty word, and with the advent of Facebook comments, has probably seen a dramatic increase in usage over the past few years as an insult or as a conversation-ending trump card. Problem is, when talking about a mystery like how God became human in the Incarnation, avoiding some kind of undue emphasis is almost impossible. So rather than talk about heresies as if they are something every Christian should innately understand and know how to avoid, maybe it would be useful to think about how we each have been shaped by our traditions into thinking about Jesus in different ways, some which are helpful and some of which are not. We are all a little bit heretical, and it’s ok to admit that. Perhaps a helpful exercise would b identifying and owning up to the specific ways that we have fallen short.
I will start, but first it might be helpful to list a few of the more famous Christological heresies:
Ebionism- Jesus is just a man and not divine
Adoptionism- Jesus was human, but he became the Son of God by Adoption
Docetism- Jesus just ‘seemed’ to be human, but was really completely divine
Arianism- Jesus is related to God as his son, but he is not fully divine
Apollinarianism- Jesus had a human body, but a divine mind and will
Nestorianism- Jesus had a divine nature and a human nature, somehow Krazy-glued together
Monophysitism- Jesus’ humanity was totally absorbed by His divinity
Of course, to talk of Christological heresies is to imply that there is a normative (“orthodox”) understanding of the nature of Christ guiding the church’s thought and practice. My tradition approached Scripture with the characteristically Protestant “primary naivete,” assuming that to learn from tradition would risk the danger of being corrupted by human ideas and philosophies. So while we understood some ways of thinking about Jesus to be wrong, or contrary to the witness of Scripture, there could be no talk of heresy per se. Our approach of sola scriptura (strangely complemented by the Spirit) meant that essentially any way of talking about Christ could be justified provided the appropriate Scriptural reference. This gave us a wide “window of normativity” inside which we could talk about the Incarnate Son, but this window was itself of course shaped by our unspoken tradition – Jesus was nothing if not divine, and the idea that Jesus was simply a prophet, or a creature, would never have occurred to us.
We could not help but begin with a docetic framework, though the incarnation and humanity of Jesus were never denied – rather, they were simply never taken seriously. Jesus was God on safari, soaking up the experience of humanhood, but always with some emotional and ontological distance (Perhaps this is why short term missions were so popular among my church community). Jesus could not be fully human, because in our anthropology (which of course directed all our other theologies) to be human was to be sinful.
For those brave enough to embrace Jesus’ humanity beyond docetism, Apollinarianism lay in wait. Hebrews 4:15 is the paradoxical unfolding of this heresy in my tradition. Jesus was tempted in every way, yet did not sin…so it must follow that he was not truly tempted as we are. Again, the ground of what we know about what it means to be human is to be in sin. If Jesus did not sin, and of course we affirmed that he did not, then we might assume that his humanity was not really in control of his actions or thoughts. Jesus had the advantage of being pre-programmed to resist evil, and since we don’t have that kind of good fortune, Jesus is perhaps even more alien to us in human form than God is to us as divinity (from which we can at least draw on metaphors and analogies!)
How about you – where do you fall on the Christological heresy spectrum? What can you learn from the ways your tradition has tried to faithfully talk about Jesus’ divinity and humanity?