Tuesday, June 06, 2006

Early experiments in Christology

By Paul N. Tobin
Rejection of Pascal's Wager

In the Gentile world Christianity found itself in, it had to compete for converts from other pagan mystery religions. As we have noted elsewhere, these religions also have their own myths about virgin births and dying and rising gods. At the turn of the first century AD, christology was no more developed, no better refined, then the pagan theologies concerning Zeus, Dionysius, Mithra and other gods.

Based on our previous analysis, the Jewish Christians, the Nazarenes, were obviously monotheists and took Jesus to be, at most, the messiah. The early church fathers therefore faced a problem in their theological battle with the pagans. They derided the pagans for their polytheism yet at the same time they faced a difficulty with their own conception of Jesus. It was obviously the divine or quasi-divine figure of the Christ that was drawing in the converts; yet how are they to formulate a doctrine regarding the nature of Jesus. For if Jesus was a man, why do they ostensibly worship him? And if Jesus was God, surely, his suffering could not be real; so why weep for him? It were attempts to meet this challenge that forced some of the early Christian theologians to formulate a more exact doctrine about the person and nature of Jesus.


To save Christianity from the charge of polytheism but at the same time to keep the worship of Jesus alive, the Christian teacher Praxeas, around the year 200 taught that the Son and the Holy Spirit are in essence simply functions of the one God. In this scheme, it was, essentially, God the Father who descended into the Virgin Mary and became Jesus Christ. Praxeas was accused by other Christians as "making the Father suffer" on the cross. His sect was called the Patripassians. For taking the trouble to think through his beliefs, Praxeas was denounced as a heretic.

Sabellianism or Modal Monarchianism

A little later, around the year 250, another Christian teacher, the priest Sabellius, tried another formulation of the Christian belief in God. In retrospect in represented the most commonsensical view of the Christian Godhead; all the later developments were to progressively made the Christian Trinity a travesty of reason.

Sabellius taught that the three "persons" of the Trinity; the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit were not actually persons but are different aspects or modes of the deity-such as power, wisdom and goodness. His teaching kept the unity of the Godhead but, like Praxeas, he was accused of "making the Father suffer" or Patripassianism. He met this accusation by asserting that only a certain energy from God had been united with the human Jesus. Another name for Sabellianism is Modal Monarchianism. Modal because it teaches that the three persons where simply three modes of the same person. Monarchianism bacause it sought to preserve the unity (monarchy) of the godhead.

Sabellianism attracted many adherents including many Christian bishops. However the teaching did away with the divine nature of Jesus. Jesus in Sabellianism became no more than a human body inhabited by a certain emanation from God. Yet the ostensible divinity of Jesus was the main attracting force for pagan proselytes. As such, Sabellianism could not have been the official doctrine: it does not have that effective conversion magnetism. Sabellianism persisted in one form or another for a few more generations before disappearing from the scene.

Dynamic Monarchianism

The second century theologian Theodotus taught a doctrine quite similar to Sabellianism. Theodotus, a cobbler living in Rome, expounded the doctrine that Jesus was merely a man who was anointed by the Holy Spirit on his baptism and became the Christ. In his teaching, God's unity (or monarchy) was preserved. An impersonal power (Greek, dynamis = power) from God lived within the humna Jesus. Like Sabellianism, his teaching could not gain widespread acceptance among the pagans and the pagan converts to Christianity for precisely the same reason: it did away with the divinity of Jesus.

It is very likely that Theodotus' teaching was based on the apostolic concept that Jesus was associated with God on a purely symbolic plane. For this doctrine was certainly taught by the Nazarenes.

A follower of Theodotus that attained some following was Paul of Samosota. Paul, the bishop of Antioch, around the year 260 taught that the Godhead was a Trinity consisting of Father, Wisdom and Logos (Word). The Logos, who was not a distinct person from the Father ascended unto the human Jesus but was never united with him. Paul's teaching was condemned by the synod of Antioch in 264. He promised, after the synod, to renounce his teaching. But it was a promise he did not keep. In another synod four years later, Paul was deposed from his office as bishop and subsequently excommunicated.

Heretical Orthodoxies: Not an Oxymoron

All the "heretics" we have seen above, never thought of themselves as such. They were merely thoughtful believers who tried to clarify their faith. The way the early Christians settled these issues were not so much by theological debates, but by banishment and excommunication. That there was no "orthodox" position can be shown from the fact that even church fathers considered Orthodox held views which were later branded as heretical.

Tertullian (c160-c225), an Orthodox father, taught that Jesus was formed or created when God said "Let there be light" at the beginning of the creation of the universe. In that sense, Jesus was "the first of all creation." According to Tertullian, the Logos was a kind of radiation from which the Father descended into the Virgin Mary, and became the human Jesus.

Origen (c185-254), another theologian bestowed with the label "orthodox" by later Christians, taught that Jesus was not exactly the incarnation of God but was a being distinct from him. Jesus was an emanation from God. Divine, yes, but still subordinate to God. In fact, when the fourth century Christian author, Rufinus, wanted to translate Origen's book On First Principles, he found that there were many views expounded in the book which, by then, were considered unorthodox, or even heretical. When he translated Origen's book from Greek to Latin, he also "translated" his ideas. In his preface, Rufinus said that he took care to "smooth over" certain statements and ideas of Origen that would "likely to cause offence" to ensure that his readers would find "nothing out of harmony" with what they considered to be orthodox.


A brief survey above should suffice to show that there was no official Orthodox position. "Heretics" and "orthodox" alike, all contributed to the evolution of christological ideas. Up until the fourth century, all Christians believe that Jesus somehow had a special relationship with god. Many vaguely thought of him as divine but they did not believe him to be equal to the Father. Most Christians, like Tertullian and Origen, like Sabellius and Theodotus, heretics and orthodox, were "subordinationists"; they believe Jesus was divine but that he was somehow inferior or subordinate to God the Father. There was, up till then, no widely accepted clear-cut formulation on the person and nature of Jesus. All this was brought to a head in the fourth century when a controversy arose that was to change the theological conception of Jesus forever; The Arian Controversy.

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