The Incarnation: Getting a Handle on Five Heresies

cappadociansYesterday, I gave a short introduction to a number of terms related to the Incarnation of our Lord. Today, I want to offer a short description of five heresies that have infected the church throughout the centuries.

These five heresies are named after four people (Arius, Apollinarius, Nestorius, and Eutychius—can you tell these guys aren’t from Kansas?) and one Greek word (dokein meaning “to seem” and dókēsis meaning “apparition, phantom”). These heresies are related to one another in history, and some of them actually came by means of trying to correct another. What I have spelled out below is but the simplest explanation of each term, with practical application at the end.

Five Heresies

Arianism. The heresy that denies the full deity of Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit.  Arius (ca. 250-336) proposed that the Son was created by the power and will of the Father, one who served in creation and revelation.  Proverbs 8:22 served as his major proof text. With this OT passage he failed to see how Proverbs 8 only speaks typologically of Christ as God’s wisdom.  Arius’ views were officially overturned at the Council of Nicea (325), but it continued to be the predominate view in the middle of the fourth century.  Today, Jehovah’s Witnesses propagate a kind of Arianism by rewording the language of John 1:1-3 and Colossians 1:15, 18 and denying the full, eternal deity of Jesus Christ the Son of God.

Docetism. Opposite of Arianism, docetism is the belief that Christ was a spiritual being with only the appearance (dokein) of humanity.  In the second century, Gnostics taught this view; in the fourth century, Manichaeans did. Proto-Gnosticism was present during the time of the Bible (cf. 1 John 1:1-4; 4:2; 5:6).  Today, secular scholars who divorce the Jesus of history from the Christ of faith are in danger of docetism.

Apollinarianism. The heresy that mingled the deity and humanity of Christ, making him neither fully God, nor fully man.  While respectable in many ways (e.g., he fought against Arius), Apollinarius put together a divine nature with a human body (Logos + sarx; not Logos + anthropos).  Thus, he deified the human nature and reduced the divine, making Christ ‘a mean between God and man, neither wholly man nor wholly God, but a combination of God and man’ (Syllogsmoi, frag., 113).  Today, scholars like William Lane Craig come close to Apollinarianism by suggesting that the divine mind inhabits the human Jesus, and that he has only one will (monotheletism).

Nestorianism. The heresy that makes Christ two, separate persons.  Instead of a hypostatic union, he is a composite.  Nestorius was a fifth century theologian who limited his understanding to a superficial reading of Scripture.  For instance, he was unwilling to assert that Mary was the mother of God (theotokos); instead she was the Christotokos.  Today, there are some in the Eastern Orthodox Church who support Nestorius’ view.

Eutychianism. The heresy that the human nature was absorbed into the divine.  Eutychius was a fifth century theologian who responded to Nestorius, and conceived of Christ’s incarnation as mixture of divine and human (tertium quid).


Truth be told, I still struggle with remembering exactly which heresy is which. That is to say, I have a hard time remembering all the historical terms, dates, names, and debates. But I continue to think on them, because understanding these heresies is vital for ascertaining, defending, and proclaiming the truth about Christ.

These heresies are not just historical debates. They continue to spring up in today’s church. Moreover, in preaching about Christ’s incarnation (something all pastors should do with regularity, especially around Christmas), these errant views should help us know what correctives we need to give our people.

These errors did not spring up outside the church from unbelievers. To a man, these errors arose within the church, from ‘Christians’ who wrongly read the Bible and mistakenly explained the beautiful mystery (revealed to us in Scripture) of the Incarnation. Therefore, even if pastors do not cart these words into the pulpit, these heretical Christologies should inform our preaching as we exposit “the 1’s” (John 1, Colossians 1, Hebrews 1, Revelation 1) and other Christological passages.

As challenging as this historical theology is it is worth the effort to understand it. It helps us know and love the God who took on flesh and died in our place as our perfect substitute. It clarifies our vision of Christ and it straightens the way that we speak about God—which is no small thing.

Soli Deo Gloria, dss

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