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Early Controversies

Renewing Your Mind / R.C. Sproul
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March 16, 2024 12:01 am

Early Controversies

Renewing Your Mind / R.C. Sproul

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March 16, 2024 12:01 am

As many people in the early church attempted to explain the Trinity, some entered the realm of heresy, and controversy followed. Today, R.C. Sproul explains how these controversies are beneficial to our understanding of the Godhead.

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At the Council of Nicaea that gave to us the Nicene Creed, Arianism was condemned as a heresy, and the Nicene Creed has statements like this, that Christ was begotten, not made. And the affirmation of the church at Nicaea was that Christ is co-substantial and co-eternal with the Father. Who is Jesus? This is a question of ultimate importance, because to get His identity wrong is to deny an essential doctrine of the Christian faith. And it's only the Jesus that's revealed to us in the Bible that can save us. Welcome to the Saturday edition of Renewing Your Mind.

Each Saturday, we are working our way through R.C. Sproul's series, The Mystery of the Trinity. In the early centuries of the church, the true identity of Jesus came under attack. How did Jesus relate to the Father? Was He of the same substance as the Father, or only a similar substance? Don't forget that as you think about these questions, you can own the six-part study on the Trinity yourself.

You can learn how to do that at The difference between getting Jesus' identity right or falling into heresy, as you'll hear today, came down to one letter in the Greek alphabet. Here's Dr. Sproul to explain. We're going to continue now with our study of the Christian concept of the Trinity. And if you recall in our last session, at the end, we looked at the prologue to the gospel according to Saint John, and I've mentioned to you that his concept of the divine logos that from all eternity was with God and yet is God preoccupied the intellectual investigation and inquiry of the thinking of the Christian church in the first three centuries. That so-called logos, Christology, dominated the reflection of the early church, and not all of those reflections ended well. Some of them moved in the direction of what was subsequently called to be heresy and distortions of the biblical view of Christ and forced the church to define her understanding of the Trinity in an official way. You know, most every Christian community continues to affirm the assertions of the so-called ecumenical councils of church history, the two chief of which were the Council of Nicaea in the fourth century and the Council of Chalcedon in the fifth century. And so, I want to spend some time today looking at the issues that provoked the controversy that made these councils necessary for the historic Christian church. As I said in the beginning, the first two centuries, the reflection focused upon the idea of the eternal logos. And the constant tension that was always there was how do we relate the affirmation of the deity of Christ, particularly as well as the Holy Spirit, but particularly the deity of Christ with the biblical concept of monotheism. And so, that was the tension that forced the development of the Trinity.

And so, the question was, how do we understand the nature of this triune God? And what emerged historically in the third and fourth century was the development of what is called monarchianism. Now, not everyone is familiar with that term. It's a theological term that has an important role in church history, but we're very familiar with part of the term, and that is the word monarch. When we think about a monarch, we think of a ruler of a nation that is either a king or a queen. And the idea of monarchy comes from the prefix, again, mono, which means one, and the Greek word archē, which means beginning, chief, or ruler.

And we've seen that in other contexts. In fact, in the beginning of John's gospel where John says, in the beginning was the word, the Greek reads en archē, using this very word archē. But also, the word archē, beside meaning beginning, can mean chief or ruler, and we've seen that in other series. We did a series on angels in which we talked about archangels, architects, arch-enemies, archbishops. All of those terms are qualified by the prefix arch, which is borrowed from this same Greek word, which means chief, so that a chief bishop would be an archbishop, a chief angel, a ruling angel would be an archangel, and so on.

It's the same word. And so, monarchianism was an attempt historically to preserve the unity of God and specifically monotheism, but it sometimes, as I said, veered off course and created several problems. The first great heresy that the church had to deal with with respect to monarchianism was called modalistic, modalistic monarchianism. Now, that is a mouthful. Maybe you've never heard of monarchianism before, and now we're making it all the more complicated by giving us this qualifying term, modalistic.

Well, what in the world does that mean? Well, in the second century, the church was threatened by the appearance of a heretical group called Gnostics. And without getting into all that was involved in Gnosticism, the Gnostics had a view of God and a view of reality that was on a collision course with Christianity.

This was further refined in the development of the philosophy called Neoplatonism, and particularly through its chief architect Plotinus. But the idea of modalism is simply this, that all of reality, from angels down to rocks, all of reality manifests a certain particular mode of the being of God. There's an inherent pantheism involved in this, but the idea goes like this. At the top, or in the center of reality, is the One, or the core being of God. And from the very being of God, there arises there arises eternally and by necessity various emanations that come out from the center. And the analogy would be like the concentric circles that move out from the core if you would drop a pebble in the pond, and you see the ripples moving out from the center in all direction.

And you notice that the further you get away from where the pebble drops in the water, the weaker the ripple becomes, until after a while you can't even discern the motion. Well, this emanation theory is that all of reality is a manifestation of the being of God, so that you have different levels, spiritual level, intellectual level, psychical level, and so on, and you come down here to pure matter like rocks and so on, that even the rocks are part of the One. They share in the very being of the One, even though they're a lower level or a lower mode of the ultimate being.

But everything is still a part of the One. Now again, the chief leader in the third century for this distortion known as modalistic monarchism was a man by the name of Sibelius. And Sibelius used an illustration to communicate what he was teaching with respect to this idea of modalism. His analogy was the analogy of the sun and its rays.

I mean, this is something that we experience every day. We make a distinction in our popular language between the sun and sunbeams. You know, sometimes we'll look around and we'll see the sun shining through the window, and it seems like you can almost package these sunbeams.

And you'll say, well, what is that? And we say, well, that's sunlight. Well, where's the sun?

Well, the sun's 93 million miles away. But that light that comes to us from the sun is part of the sun. It is the beam that comes from the sun, the light that comes from the sun. And according to Sibelius, these rays partake of the very nature of the sun. They are in fact the same essence as the sun.

They're just further removed from the core of the sun. And so Sibelius, in explaining this idea of the relationship between God the Father and God the Son, said that Christ is like a sunbeam. He is an emanation from the Father. He's a lower level than the Father, but He is of the same essence as the Father.

He participates in deity, but then so do the rocks. And so he used a word to define the relationship between the Father and the Son, which probably in the whole history of the church was the most controversial single word ever dealt with, and that was the word homoousios, which is a Greek term. And the word ousios, if you know a little bit of Greek, you know that the term ousios is the present participle of the verb to be.

Now, let me give you a little pop quiz on grammar and language, even if you don't know Greek. What would be the present participle of the verb to be in English? Exactly, being, being. And so the idea at the root of this word homoousios, that ousios means being, and the prefix homo- means the same. We say things are homogeneous and so on, so that homoousios means the same being or the same substance. Now, you're beginning to see part of the reason why the classical formula for the Trinity has that affirmation at the beginning that God is one in essence or one in being, but three in person. And so Sibelius was saying, I believe that there is a sameness of being between God the Father and God the Son, even though God the Son is not equal with God the Father because He's a lower level of being, just as the sunbeam is lower than the center of the sun.

I hope we understand that. Now, this idea of modalistic monarchianism, meaning that Christ is a mode of being of the Father, was condemned in the third century as heresy at Antioch. And see if anyone can guess the year. And anyone in this classroom guessed the year that Antioch condemned Sibelius and modalistic monarchianism. It's in the third century.

Thank you very much, 267. I thought you might be wondering why I had that number up on the board. See, somebody thought that that number represented somebody's bowling score or something like that, but no, that's the year in which Sibelius was condemned. And that's important because after Sibelius was condemned and this controversial word homoousios was rejected by the church, the church substituted for the term homoousios, the term homoi, not hanoi, homoiousios. Now, it has the same root, usios, but the prefix changes from homo to homoi, and the difference in Greek is this. It's the difference between the word same being to the word similar being. And so the church rejected as heresy Sibelius' idea of God the Father and God the Son being the same essence because they were rejecting the modalism in the philosophy behind this language. And so the church says, no, we don't want to say that they're the same essence because that'll get us into this pantheism that we want to avoid. And rather, they said we have to say that there is a likeness or a similarity in the being of Christ and the being of the Father.

And so that became the orthodox word for the rest of the third century as the followers of Sibelius were considered heretics. But then after this happened, another kind of monarchianism appeared on the scene. And this new form of monarchianism was called dynamic monarchian. And the difference in the distinction between modalistic monarchianism and dynamic monarchianism is that in dynamic monarchianism, this whole scheme of emanations that was found in Neoplatonism or in Gnosticism was rejected. And the dynamic monarchianism was also committed to preserving monotheism, while at the same time giving honor and central importance to Christianity of the person of Christ. And the view was propagated by some people who developed in the Antioch area and people who've included such teachers as Paul of Samosata and others, but it was most popularized by its leading spokesman, whose name was Arius.

And Arius is known for being the father of Arianism, not the A-R-Y Arian version of Adolf Hitler and the biological heroism of the Nazis, but rather the Arianism that is borrowed from this man's name, Arius, who was the chief spokesperson for dynamic monarchianism. Sometimes his view is called adoptionist Christology, and it's for this reason that at the beginning, before God creates the universe, the firstborn of creation, the first born of God is Christ, or the Logos. The first thing that God creates is the Logos, and then the Logos creates everything else, so that the Logos is higher than the angels, higher than human beings, and is the one who creates the world. He's the Creator. He preaches the world. He's the world. He's the Creator.

He predates the world. He has preexistence over the rest of the universe, but He is not eternal, and because He's not eternal, He is not equal with God. So, the Logos is less than God but greater than man, and it is the Logos that becomes incarnate, historically, in the person of Jesus. And so now the Logos, with the human nature, becomes obedient to the Father, becomes one with the Father in terms of being on the same page, having the same mission, committed to the same goals as the Father, and because of His obedience, He is, quote, adopted by the Father as the Father's Son. And so it is properly to call Christ the Son of God, but He becomes the Son of God dynamically.

There's a change. He was not always the Son of God, but rather His sonship is something He virtually earns. But even then, we're talking about the most exalted creature who is still a creature. Now, to defend this view, Arius turned to the word that the church used at Antioch in 267 when he said, I believe that Christ is homoi, usios. He's like God. He's the express image of His person. He's the brightness of His glory, borrowing from Hebrews. He's the firstborn of all creation. He is the begotten Son of God, but He is not God. And he argued from the Greek language that the language of the New Testament that describes Christ as begotten, the language of the Greek there means to be, beget, or to happen. And it carries the implication, particularly biologically, biologically, of that which has a beginning in time. And anything that has a beginning in time is less than God because God has no beginning in time.

God is not begotten in that sense because He's eternal. And so from that biblical language, Arius insisted that the Bible did not teach the full deity of Christ. And this is what provoked in the final analysis the Council of Nicaea, the work of Athanasius and the intrigue that went on between actually three parties, the homoi, usion party, and the homo, usion party, and the Athanasian party, and so on.

And it's a fascinating study in church history to see the struggle that the church went through in the beginning of the fourth century. But at the Council of Nicaea that gave to us the Nicene Creed, Arianism was condemned as a heresy. And the Nicene Creed has statements like this, that Christ was begotten, not made. And the affirmation of the church at Nicaea was that Christ is co-substantial and co-eternal with the Father. That is, the church was saying that when the language of begottenness or firstborn is used in Scripture, it has to do with the place of honor, not with biological origin as it was in the Greek language.

There are some times that the Greek language does not adequately convey the Hebrew concepts that it is designed to convey in biblical literature. And so the church clearly condemns Arius, and with this condemnation of Arius, condemns the term homoi, usios. And now in the Nicene Creed uses the very word that the church had condemned in 267 as the touchstone of Christian orthodoxy, homo usios. Now why did the church do that? You can say, well, the church was inconsistent, the church flip-flopped, and so on.

No. The heresy that threatened the church's understanding of Christ in the third century had been removed. The new threat of Arianism was far greater than the threat that Sibelionism had been. And Arius was trying to hide behind this term homoi, using it in a way completely different from how the church intended it at Antioch. And that's what happens with heretics all the time. They'll take orthodox language and put new meaning into it to distort the truth of Christianity. And so the point we have to understand is that the church of the fourth century saw the threat of Arianism as being so serious to biblical Christianity that she reverted back to a term that she had previously rejected in order to communicate the idea that however we understand Christ and the Spirit, that they are the very essence of God and of deity, that Christ and the Spirit are homo usios, of the same substance, being, and essence as the Father. And here we have this idea clearly maintained that God, though three in person, is one in essence, one in usios. You're listening to Renewing Your Mind, and that was R.C. 's sprawl on some of the early controversies of the early church and how they responded to be faithful in their proclamation of who Jesus Christ is.

And their example should press us and encourage us to be faithful, ensuring that the gospel we preach, the Jesus we proclaim, is the Jesus of the Bible and not a rebranded Jesus who may be more palatable for a 21st century audience. Today's message is from R.C. Sprawl's The Mystery of the Trinity series, and this series can be yours when you give a gift of any amount at We'll send you the DVD edition, a copy of Dr. Sprawl's title, What is the Trinity?, and give you streaming access to the entire series in the free Ligonier app. So give your donation today at

And remember, this offer ends at midnight, so be quick. The theological attacks in the early church didn't stop in the fourth century. Next time, R.C. Sprawl will explore some of the heresies of the fifth century. That's next Saturday here on Renewing Your Mind. .
Whisper: medium.en / 2024-03-16 02:57:53 / 2024-03-16 03:05:52 / 8

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