Author: Robin Brace
This belief, that Jesus was not really God, just the highest creation of God, was one of the first Church heresies. It was defeated simply because it is unscriptural; there are just too many New Testament verses which cannot be explained within this schema. The teaching originated with Arius, a fourth century Alexandrian minister. It was denounced as heresy at the councils of Nicaea (325) & Constantinople (381.) These early Church councils were almost certainly guided by the Holy Spirit and their judgements have stood the test of time. The Arians insisted on calling the Son of God ‘creature’ and ‘work’ because they were uncompromising monotheists (believing in One God) and thought that this was compromised by calling Jesus, God. But one should not baulk at revealed truths just because they may be humanly difficult to explain.
If Arianism should be true, we have no saviour, since Jesus is too far below God for His sacrifice to have been efficacious for us. Jesus becomes an example of decent living and little more. This is high error indeed! Despite this, Arianism is still alive and kicking and is at the heart of the approach of Jehovah’s Witnesses.
The Ebionites also tended to demote the place of Christ. They taught the necessity for Christians to also uphold and obey the law of Moses and so have often been compared to the Judaistic group who were undermining Paul’s teachings at Galatia. A few have claimed that the Ebionites were the descendants of the Jerusalem church of the first century, but this is very far from being proven. Like the Arians, this group were very soon on the outside of the established Church. This approach is very very similar to the approach adopted by Herbert W. Armstrong, founder of the ‘Worldwide Church of God’ cult/sect.
For Armstrong, law was everything although he was very selective about which laws he was keen on; some were almost ignored, others such as the seventh day Sabbath and the Leviticus 23 holydays, were relentlessly pushed by Armstrong. He appeared totally disinterested in the major Christian doctrine of Grace, despite that doctrines very high profile in the writings of Paul. Armstrong would have agreed that the Old Covenant sacrifices had now ceased but was unwilling to make further concessions which placed his theology a long way from the theology of the New Testament. The tiny WCG offshoot cults have tried to maintain, to a greater or lesser degree, Armstrong’s approach.
This was the famous 5th century heresy which was condemned at the councils of Milevis (416) and Carthage (418). Pelagius was a British Bible teacher who rejected the doctrine of ‘original sin’ and taught a ‘pull yourselves up by your own bootstraps’ method of salvation. Yet again, we find both Christ and the pivotal Christian doctrine of grace strongly relegated within this schema.
Pelagianism has, necessarily, gone straight into every cult or sect which rejects the fully biblical doctrine of ‘original sin’ (Psalm 51: 5). The true evangelical Christian doctrine, appears in the early chapters of Genesis, and is later fully supported by Paul, so it really is not an option for the serious Bible student to reject it; despite this, however, numerous Adventist-type groups do reject it.
The clear teaching, within this essential doctrine, is that the legacy of Adam’s sin has been passed on and imputed to all his children; mankind therefore stands in a current state of ‘falleness’. Only Christ can resolve this situation and He does so by imputing His righteousness to all who came to Him in faith. So the first Adam has caused his sin to be imputed to his children, while the second Adam, Jesus Christ, in His act of redemption, causes His righteousness to be imputed to all of His children. But where these vital biblical concepts are not upheld, Pelagianism will raise its head. Now men and women have it within themselves to ‘make it’ following Jesus’ example, and grace is left far behind!
This really is the teaching of salvation by works. This theological schema has strongly affected the cults and sects and large areas of the New Age movement. It was strongly present in the old-style WCG group.
It has wisely been said that a cult does not exist except where it can uphold at least one conspiracy theory! This is very true and it is truly astonishing what some sects and cults have sometimes succeeded in getting quite bright and intelligent people to believe! However, some of the sub-Christian sects do not have clean hands here either; some of the seventh-day groups have come up with woeful perversions of early Church history in order to ‘prove’ how only apostate Christians turned to Sunday.
Typically, religious conspiracy theories might involve world bankers, the number 666, political goings-on in Europe, the Roman Catholic Church, new translations of the Bible… or almost anything else. The fact that there are sometimes nuggets of truth in these sorts of theories should not give anyone licence to come up with wild, wooly and totally unsubstantiated claims which are liable to lead the naive astray!
To take just a few of these; the number 666 does, of course, occur in the book of Revelation, but the astonishing and totally unproven theories which people have sometimes come up with – and then been prepared to claim that their approach is ‘biblical’ – is quite amazing!
A recent book, Mystery, Babylon the Great; the Church of Rome and the European Union exposed to the Light of Truth, is fairly typical. It contains some amazing nonsense and yet will undoubtedly be avidly believed by many who read it! Much of it appears to be based on the now widely discredited The Two Babylons by Hislop. Numerous unproven and unprovable ideas and schemas are given credence, as, is the now, somewhat famed religious hoaxer, Rivera. (One of his claims is that the Church of Rome not only frames, but actually murders Protestant ministers!) The economy with hard facts is, I’m afraid, typical of such books. Now, of course, as evangelical Protestants, we believe that the Church of Rome does have enormous doctrinal problems – but surely that does not give anyone the right to write wild and sensationalist claims which have not been meticulously researched!
A campaign to save the Old King James Bible has predictably gained support from some otherwise extremist groups. Some claims about various Bible translators have gone as far as blatant name-calling! The book mentioned even confuses the widely respected Christian translator, B.F. Westacott with W.W. Westacott, the occultist!
In all of this approach, fear appears to be a factor, forgetting the sound advice of 2 Timothy 1:7.
‘LEVEL PLAYING FIELD’ BIBLICAL EXEGESIS
The Bible, quite obviously, contains various forms of writing. Surely nobody can deny that it contains prophecy, poetry, parables, historical accounts, apocalyptic writing, letters and other elements too. We should all be able to perceive that these are different forms of writing. Yes, in the case of the Bible, all inspired by the Holy Spirit – but still different forms of literature.
This should not seem so strange; when we look at a newspaper, we find main news, the editorial, a TV section, advertisements, perhaps (lamentably!) an astrology column, maybe a fashion section, the sports section and so on. We all immediately recognise these as different forms of writing. We do not expect the same from the ‘car ads’ as we would from the sports, or we do not confuse a vital ‘breaking news’ item with the gardening column! This sounds obvious and quite amusing, in fact. All theologians and serious students of the Bible must confront these factors when looking at the varied facets of the Word of God. Unfortunately, however, the sects and cults have always tended to look on the Bible as a level playing field in which to enjoy their sports, unencumbered by any academic responsibility!
This is not putting it too strongly. They have often practised a ‘mix and match’ school of biblical interpretation which does not take account of differences within biblical writings. Lamentably these people have often not been slow in lifting a given Scripture completely out of its context if it can be used (abused?) to back up their points and agendas. They have been unconcerned about mixing different writing genres. This would be somewhat akin to reading a news item about Tony Blair but noticing that a detail had been left out, so looking for it in the advertising column! Obviously absurd.
This is the practise that Kurt Hutton called ‘Knight Jump exegesis’ (which he applied to Jehovah’s Witnesses) – all the Adventist-type (and indeed other types) of cults & sects have frequently ended up with the proverbial ‘egg on their faces’ because of repeated attempts to impose their own agendas upon the Scriptures, especially in the area of prophecy.
Though there were some early ‘rumblings’ about the Trinity doctrine, the early Church councils tended to iron these out. As a more organised heresy, Unitarianism arrived late, emerging in 16th century England and Hungary. These people baulked at the idea that God could exist ‘in three persons’ and they were, perhaps, especially concerned about the Holy Spirit. Before too long, however, elements of Pelagianism came into the movement with its optimistic view of Man’s salvific potential and – as always in such a scenario – the place of Christ and His Grace started to be downplayed. Others started to say that Christ’s sacrifice had not been strictly necessary. So, yet again, we see evidence of how, these Christ and grace demoting heresies, tended to ‘stick together’. Yet, while the make-up of the Trinity is not a specific part of the gospel message, the Trinity can be plainly seen in the New Testament. In time it was natural that questions would be asked so the early Church came up with an agreed approach in order to prevent division, dissent and heresy. It was the best they could do and, in fact, no better way of explaining the concept of God in three persons has been produced.
Unitarianism has gone straight into most of the cults and sub-Christian sects. Some of these people prefer to call the Holy Spirit, ‘just the power of God’, and this sounds attractive at first, but a deeper knowledge of the Scriptures eventually shows that this doesn’t go far enough; there is plainly a personal element too. In 62 references to the Spirit in Acts, 18 describe the Spirit in terms of a personage who speaks, forbids, thinks good, appoints, sends, bears witness, prevents, is deceived and resisted!
‘Just the power of God’ does not satisfy these Scriptures! In the Pauline epistles too we find that the Spirit is grieved, bears witness, cries, leads and makes intercession. Again, the cults and sects have often claimed that the Trinity is pagan in origin and they have gone looking for triads within paganism as evidence of this – but, of course, the ‘researcher’s effect’ immediately comes into play here (researchers tend to ‘find’ whatever they are looking for!) The truth is, however, that the Trinity is not error but, rather, the rejection of it is a heresy as the Church decided a long time ago.
The whole Holy Trinity is involved in our conversion and Christian life! The Father draws us to the Son by means of His Spirit and it is the Spirit which leads us on our Christian paths. When Jesus was about to return to heaven, He specifically stated that it was needful that His Spirit should come in order to continue leading His Church – Father, Son and Holy Spirit are all revealed to be God; the Scriptures are not lacking to back up this point.