Historical Positions On The Deity Of Christ
C. G. "Colly"Caldwell
Temple Terrace, Florida
One of the most basic and fundamental doctrines of the New Testament is the fact that Jesus Christ was more than man. The Truth proclaims that He is in fact Divine, God the Son (John 1:1; Heb. 1:6-8). So important is it to believe in His Deity that Jesus said, "Except ye believe that I am he, ye shall die in your sins" (John 8:24). You will notice that the word "he" is italicized indicating that it was supplied by the translators. In fact Jesus is using the Divine designation which was given to Moses when he asked God, "Behold, when I come unto the children of Israel, and shall say unto them, The God of your fathers hath sent me unto you; and they shall say to me, What is his name? what shall I say unto them? And God said unto Moses, I AM THAT I AM: and he said, Thus shalt thou say unto the children of Israel, I AM hath sent me unto you" (Ex. 3:13-14). Again, the point must be made that belief in the Deity of Christ is essential to salvation! On earth He was "God with us," God and man (Matt. 1:23; John 1:14).
Through the centuries, challenges have arisen to this great Truth. We should be aware of some of the major controversies:
The Sabellians (ca A.D. 215)
Sabellius was a teacher at Rome and a leader of the "modalistic monarchian" school of thought regarding divinity ("monarchy" suggesting the primacy of the Father). He was excommunicated by Callistus, bishop of Rome between A.D. 217 and 222. Sabellius argued that God is one "Person" who projects Himself in three "modes" (filling three roles):
a. Seen as "Father," He creates and gives law;
b. Seen as "Son," He .redeems and saves; and
c. Seen as "the Spirit," He sanctifies giving spiritual life.
Modern forms of Sabellianism are held by the Unitarians and Oneness Pentecostals.
The Arians (ca A.D. 318-381)
Arius was an Alexandrian theologian who died in A.D. 336. Alexander (also of Alexandria) responded to his views before the Council of Nicaea (A.D. 325) and Athanasius disputed with him afterwards. Arius argued that Jesus was a created being and not eternal. Jesus was an intermediate being between deity and humanity, he said. The Father alone is true God. The Son is called "God" only in a metaphorical sense and, therefore, is not of the same essence (not homoousion, the same substance) as the Father. A modern form of this false position is held by the Jehovah's Witnesses.
The Apolliuarlans (ca A.D. 361-381)
The bishop of Laodicea, Apollinarius, was an aggressive polemicist of the fourth century. He claimed that Jesus was Divine to the point that He could not be truly human at the same time. The only life principle in Christ was the Logos, he said, and therefore all human involvement in Jesus was "passively" observed but not really experienced. Jesus consequently did not have a human will and did not participate in human thought processes (learning, etc.). Neither was he really tempted. This position led to the worship of Jesus' flesh in the transubstantiation view of the Lord's Supper.
The Nestorians (ca A.D. 428-451)
Originally a monk at Antioch, Nestorius became bishop of Constantinople. He taught that Jesus was actually two distinct persons, one human and one divine. The divine Christ was not involved in suffering, temptation, growth, death, etc. The human part only was borne by Mary. Mary was not, therefore, a God-bearer (theotokos).
The Monophysites (began ca A.D. 440)
In the beginning this movement was led by Eutyches, head of a monastery in Constantinople. Another important advocate of the position was Cyril of Alexandria. These men refused to accept that Jesus had two natures (human and divine) and believed that His divine Logos absorbed His humanity. Jesus, they said, did not have true human nature after His birth. The human was deified in Him so that His body was not of the same substance as ours. The deity in Him was capable of suffering and death, however.
The Monothelites (ca A.D. 580)
This position was thought to have been launched by the emperor Heraclius. The doctrine essentially sanctioned monophysitism and complemented it. It held that the human and divine wills of Jesus were fused into one will. It went on to raise the issue of whether Jesus truly had human personality. "Orthodox" theologians responded that the union of the divine and human did not deprive Jesus of any element of humanity but rather perfected it.
The Adoptionists (ca A.D. 780)
The Adoptionist controversy arises from the teachings of Elipandus of Spain. It had been hinted at in some of the earlier literature of those taking positions already described. Basically Elipandus held that Jesus became the Son of God by adoption at His baptism (some say at His resurrection). Jesus was in nature simply a man endowed with divinity as a result of His strong desire for union with God and His good life.
The Socinians (ca 1525-1600)
The Socinian movement was led by two Italian theologians, Lelio and Fausto Sozzini. They accepted the Adoptionist position but affirmed that Jesus was supernaturally conceived and resurrected. They denied the preexistence of Christ.
The Mormons (1820- )
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints traces itself to founder Joseph Smith and promoter Brigham Young. They claim that Jesus was the first born (or first created) spirit. Although they do not often have the Mormon Tabernacle Choir sing it on national radio or television, they claim that Jesus is a god in the same sense that others of us can attain unto godhood. Other men's spirits which were created before the world hold the same position as Jesus; that is, incarnated on this earth or on another planet. Mormons have a full "pantheon" of gods and Jesus is one of them. Adam was also one, as was Joseph Smith.
The Christian Scientists (1875- )
Founded by Mary Baker Glover Patterson Eddy, the Christian Scientists have claimed that Jesus was the supreme manifestation of a divine ideal or principle which exists inherently within every man. Mrs. Eddy denied the true existence of the physical universe; therefore, she claimed that Jesus was an illusion of the mortal mind. He was an idea, not God in the flesh.
The Jehovah's Witnesses (1879- )
The Jehovah's Witnesses were established by Pastor Charles Taze Russell and promoted by Judge Joseph Franklin Rutherford. The movement resulted from Adventist influences. The Witnesses contend that Jesus is a mighty god but not the Almighty God. He is the first creation of Jehovah God. He is "a god" but not the Son. This position is similar to the Arian position and uses much the same argumentation on Biblical passages such as John 1:1-3.
Guardian of Truth XXVII: 9, pp. 274-275