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ASK AN ORTHODOX PRIEST
What are the heresies within the early church concerning the Triune God?
Answer to Question 247
According to the teaching of the Orthodox Church, the one True God is triune, the Holy Trinity, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. This does not mean that there are three gods; there is but one God, one God in three persons or hypostases. One God who is discerned in three persons and in each person, the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit are wholly and entirely God and not part of the one Godhead. The Father is totally God. The Son is totally God. The Holy Spirit is totally God. A monad according to His unique and indivisible essence and a trinity according to His hypostases which are distinguished one from another, but inseparably united and indivisible, and the three possessing one essence, one will, and one energy. The Three Persons of the Holy trinity have the same opinion, make the same decision, and put forth the same energy and action.
The dogma of the Holy Trinity is the “fountainhead of our faith”, according to St. Gregory the Theologian. And the three Persons possess the same attributes and all the inexhaustible riches and treasures of the Divinity. But again each Person has his very own particular and distinguishing mark, his own hypostatic attribute or idioma: that is to say, the Father is unbeggoten, He is the “cause” or “source” of the Godhead, born of none and proceeding from none. He is the principle of unity among the three. The Son is begotten, that is, He was born of the Father from all eternity [before all ages]. This means that the Father begets the Son from His own essence eternally, timelessly and unexplainably. The Holy Spirit proceeds, that is, He proceeds from the father from all eternity and is sent into the world through the Son. All of God’s works, the works of creation, recreation and the salvation of man are brought about by all three Persons of the Godhead for the Father does all things through the Son and in the Holy Spirit. The concept of One God in Three Persons has always been the most difficult to understand and from the beginning this led to many heresies that undermined the divinity of Christ or of the Holy Spirit or both.
Most heresies fall under one of three groups: the Monophysites, the Monothelites and the Pneumatomachi. The Monophysites were heresies that had to do with Christ’ nature. Either Christ was made less than God or his manhood was so divided from his Godhead that he became two persons instead of one. The Monothelites argued that although Christ has two natures, yet since he is a single person then he only has one will. In other words Christ does not have a human will but only a divine will. The Pneumatomachi meaning “Spirit fighters” were those who did not recognize the Holy Spirit as God, they did not recognize than he was one of the three Persons of the Holy Trinity.
At first these heresies began as a local problem and so Local or Regional synods were called to deal with them. This was because Christianity as a whole was forbidden and persecuted in the Roman Empire and inadvertently this assisted in constraining heresies to their local boundaries. With the Edict of Milan in 313AD which officially granted full religious tolerance and when the Emperor Constantine officially made Christianity the religion of the empire, these heresies were very fast becoming widely known throughout the Empire. But as these heresies were now free to reach beyond their original boundaries and threaten the whole Church so also the Church was now free to go a step bigger than a local council and summon an Ecumenical Council from all regions of the Christian World.
The First Ecumenical Council was summoned to deal with the heretic Arius. Arius was a Christian priest in Alexandria, Egypt, but of Libyan origin. Arius taught that God the Father and the Son did not exist together eternally. He taught that the pre-incarnate Jesus was a divine being created by God the Father at some point, therefore the Son is a created being. Arius and his followers appealed to the Bible verse where Jesus says that the father is “greater than I”. (John 14:28) This teaching by Arius reached far beyond Alexandria and became a topic of discussion and disturbance for the entire Church.
The Emperor Constantine the Great wasn’t yet a baptized Christian, but he was sympathetic to its teachings and established it as the religion of the Empire. He desired unity in his newly formed Byzantine Empire and took a personal interest in several ecumenical issues. He wanted to bring an end to the Arian dispute which was disrupting his Empire and therefore took an unprecedented step and summoned and presided at the First Ecumenical Council held in Nicaea in the year 325. The main work of the First Council was to prove that Christ was equal and consubstantial to the Father, that he was truly God and not a creation. Arius’ teaching was officially condemned by the Church as heresy. The Council summing up the Christian faith gave us the Nicene Creed, the statement of faith which was then completed by the Second Ecumenical Council of Constantinople in 381AD. The Creed has remained unchanged from then until the present day. To show that the Son was in all things equal to the Father, the word Ομοούσιος was adopted into the Creed. The English equivalent of the word is as we say in the Creed: “Being of one substance with the Father” or Consubstantial.
The Second Ecumenical Council was held in 381AD to deal with the heresy led by Macedonius, who blasphemously taught that the Holy Spirit was a thing constructed or created by the Son. The Council also dealt with other heresies. The first Canon of the Council reads: “The holy Fathers assembled in Constantinople have decided not to set aside the faith of the three hundred and eighteen Fathers who met in Nicaea, Bithynia, but to let it remain sovereign, and that every heresy be anathematized and especially and specifically that of the Eunomians, including that of the Eudoxians, and that of the Semi-Arians, including that of the Pneumatomachi, and that of the Sabellians, and that of the Marcellians, and that of the Photinians and that of the Apollinarians.” I will explain what these heresies are shortly.
Macedonius, somewhat like Arius, who taught that Christ was a creature, now taught that the Holy Spirit was not a person (hypostasis), but simply a power or energy of God. Therefore the Spirit was inferior to the Father and the Son. The Council condemned Macedonius' teaching and defined the doctrine of the Holy Trinity. The Council decreed that there was one God in three persons (hypostases): Father, Son and Holy Spirit. The holy fathers of the Council added five articles to the Nicene Creed. They read as follows: “And (We believe) in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the Giver of Life, who proceeds from the Father: who with the Father and the Son together is worshipped and glorified: who spoke by the prophets. In one Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church. I acknowledge one baptism for the remission of sins. I look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come. Amen.”
Above I mentioned some of these heresies that troubled the Church: the Eunomians, the Eudoxians, the Semi-Arians, the Sabellians, the Marcellians, the Photinians and the Apollinarians. They are named after the people that taught these heresies. What then was their belief? Eunomius was bishop of Cyzicus, he use to re-baptize people with a single immersion, holding their feet up and their head down. He also asserted that there was no hell, but that hell was used to install fear as a threat. Like Arius, he rejected that Christ was equal and of one substance with the father, but whereas Arius said he was like the Father, Eunomius said he was unlike the Father, thus his followers are also called Anomians meaning the “unlike”.
Eudoxius was sympathetic to the Anomians, but as Patriarch of Constantinople, he felt it necessary to discourage them. He again subscribed to the Arian heresy and used the word “like the Father” without saying whether this likeness was supposed to be just a likeness or something more.
Others were called Semi-Arians because they entertained half the heresy engendered by Arius. They said the Son was like the Father in all respects and coessential with the Father, but they refused to admit the word coessential or consubstantial in the creed in spite of the fact that it had been in use among the ancient Fathers even before the First Ecumenical Council. Their leader was Basil the bishop of Ancyra. A third group called the Son neither like nor unlike the Father, but took a view midway between that of the Arians and that of the Semi-Arians.
Sabellius had served as a bishop of Ptolemais in Pentapolis. He asserted that the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit were three names for one and the same person, and that that person was called at times the Father, and at times the Son, and at other times the Holy Spirit according to the diversities of that person’s activities and operations.
Marcellus was bishop of Ancyra. He asserted that the Logos was not a divine Person but only an impersonal divine power which was issued to him in the act of creation and entered into relations with the human person of Jesus, who thus became God’s Son. He also taught that after the second judgment the Logos would retire from Jesus and his body would have to be thrown away, and to go into non-being, and that consequently His kingdom will come to an end.
Photinus, had served as bishop of Sirmium. He didn’t recognized the Holy Trinity as a God, calling it only a Spirit creative of the universe, and declaring the Logos to be only the oral word, serving as a sort of mechanical instrument, nor did he call Christ a God, but only a mere human being who had absorbed the oral word from God and had received existence from Mary.
Apollinaris, who became a bishop of Laodicea, Syria, embraced the heresy of Arius, and asserted among other things that the Logos (or rational faculty) served the body of Christ instead of a soul. At times he used to say that the Logos received a body without a soul, while at other times, being ashamed of his ignorance or want of knowledge, he would say that He received a soul, but a mindless one and an irrational one, separating, in accordance with the Platonists the soul from the mind. He made Christ a middle being between God and man, in whom, as it were, one part divine and two parts human were fused in the unity of a new nature. He even ventured to use created analogies to explain his theory such as the mule, midway between the horse and the ass, the grey colour, a mixture of white and black, and spring, in distinction from winter and summer. Christ he said, is neither whole man nor God, but a mixture of God and man. On the other hand he regarded the Orthodox view of a union of full humanity with a full divinity in one person – of two wholes in one whole – as an absurdity.
The next Ecumenical Council, that is the Third, was held in Ephesus in 431. It was called to hear the charges made against Nestorius the Patriarch of Constantinople who in his teaching had divided the person of Christ into two and was unwilling to call the Blessed Virgin Theotokos – Mother of God. He said that Mary could only be called Christotokos - the mother of Christ the man for she did not give birth to the pre-existing, pre-eternal Son of God, who already had a Father with whom He shared His divine nature.
The fourth Ecumenical Council was held in Chalcedon, near Constantinople in 451 under Emperor Marcian. A new heresy was led by an archimandrite called Eutyches and his aid Dioscorus who was now Bishop of Alexandria. Whereas the previous Council dealt with the Nestorian controversy which denied that the person of Christ who was born of Mary was both God and Man and divided him into two persons and two natures, this new heresy taught exactly the opposite. Eutyches and Dioscorus confused the two natures into one. They said that Christ’s human nature which was less perfect, dissolved itself in His divine nature which was more perfect, thus Christ only had one nature the Divine. This heresy is called Monophysite a composite word from ‘mono’ meaning one and ‘physis’ meaning nature. Hence, the term Monophysitism overemphasized the divine nature of Christ, at the expense of the human. The Council condemned Monophysitism and formulated the dogma that Christ has two complete natures: the divine and the human, as defined by previous Councils.
The Fifth Ecumenical Council was held in Constantinople in 553 under the Emperor and Saint Justinian the Great. The Monophysite controversy still continued even after the condemnation of Eutyches and the issuing of the Chalcedonian Statement of Faith. The council was asked to examine the writings of three Antiochian Bishops and renowned teachers who were already dead for over a century, Theodore of Mopsuestia, Theodoret of Cyrus, and Ibas of Edessa. The Council presided by the Patriarch of Constantinople Eutychios were in full agreement that the writings of the three famous teachers were heretical. Thus their writings were condemned and they themselves were anathematised.
The Sixth Ecumenical Council met in Constantinople in 680 AD. The Council was called to examine a new teaching that was spreading in regard to the Person of Christ. The previous Councils concerned themselves with the Monophysite heresy, this new heresy was called Monothelitism. It said that although the God-man Christ had two natures, yet since He is a single person, He has only one will and subsequently only one mode of activity: the divine. In other words Christ didn’t have a human will or his human will was totally absorbed into his divine will. The Council replied that if Christ has two natures, if follows that He also has two wills and two operations. In each act of Christ one can see two distinct operations, for Christ acts in conformity to both natures, and by both natures. Each nature acts according to its own properties: the human hand raises the young girl, the divine restores her to life; the human feet walk on the surface of the water, because the divinity has made it firm. “It is not the human nature that raises Lazarus, it is not the divine power which shed tears before the tomb,” said St. John of Damascus. The two wills proper to the two natures are different, but He who wills is one, though He wills in conformity with each of the two natures. Each nature exercises its own free will". Christ's divine nature had a specific task to perform and so did His human, without being confused nor subjected to any change or working against each other: the divine performing miracles and the human performing the ordinary acts of daily life.
The Seventh Ecumenical Council was called to deal with the validity of Icons which is another long story for another time.